The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Nothing But Trouble (1991)

Phew, even by my usual lax standards, that was a long hiatus, huh? To try to make up for it, I did two little things. One, I gave Trash Culture a long overdue facelift, and two, I thought I would take an opportunity to discuss my own favorite movie that no one else likes and that consistently gets one-star ratings, Nothing But Trouble.

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If nothing else, the movie deserves to be remembered as the oddest collaboration between most of the ’80s/’90s comedy brat pack of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and John Candy. (I’ve scoured the Internet for evidence that Bill Murray was nearly involved in some way, but no luck). Written by Peter Aykroyd, Dan’s brother, and the only film ever directed by Dan himself, it’s easy to dismiss this movie as a forgettable blunder birthed by pure nepotism, which many have. To me, though, I see Nothing But Trouble as a breath of fresh air, especially in a time when Hollywood (already rarely in its history a place that nourishes raw creativity) has become pathologically risk-averse.

I mean, it’s a comedy that just needs a tiny bit of tweaking to make it into a grindhouse horror movie. That’s basically both the premise and the sales pitch. New York financial expert Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) hits on high-class divorce lawyer Diane (Demi Moore) and uses a trip she has to make to see a client in New Jersey as an excuse to accompany her on a day-long drive. Chris thinks the trip is already ruined when his wealthy Brazilian clients, siblings Fausto (Taylor Negron) and Renaldo (Bertila Damas), invite themselves along just to see how the primitives outside New York City live. Chris’ lustful plans take even more of a nosedive when they get pulled over by a cop in the decaying rural town of Valkenvania, which lies atop a perpetually burning coal mine. See, Valkenvania’s economy was forever ruined by a deal with corrupt bankers nearly a century ago, which also saddled them with the unstable, burning mine that threatens to one day cause the town to collapse into the ground. This sin against them has not been forgotten or forgiven by the Valkenheiser clan that runs the town like a fiefdom, especially the decrepit family patriarch, J.P. Valkenheiser a.k.a. the Judge, who just so happens to be the judge over Chris Thorne’s traffic case (and, in fact, the only judge in town!). A one-man Occupy Wall Street, Judge Valkenheiser is liable to not just throw the book at city slickers, especially ones with jobs having anything to do with banking, but if he’s in a particularly foul mood he’ll feed them to his roller coaster death trap, Mr. Bonestripper. The only hope for the four to escape without their bones stripped is the growing disgust the Judge’s grandson Dennis (John Candy) has with how his grandfather runs things, or the hots the Judge’s mute and super-strong granddaughter Eldona (also John Candy) has for Chris…

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If the plot synopsis above makes the movie sound strange, there’s still plenty of details I left out. Like the fact that there’s a plot-relevant cameo by Digital Underground with a young Tupac Shakur, all as another group of defendants dragged before the Valkenheiser court,  who break out a musical number with Dan Aykroyd as the Judge joining in. Or that the Valkenheiser clan includes two twins so deformed, Bobo and Debull, that they look like they were kidnapped from the set of an ’80s fantasy flick. Or that the climax involves Chris Thorne running through a wall in the style of a Looney Toons character.

To be honest, I might be biased, since I grew up watching this movie on network TV and USA Network on Saturday afternoons, in the mysterious Hyperbolean Age before streaming services. A child with a taste for horror, fantasy, and pure schlock like lil’ me was likely more receptive to a movie like this than your average movie-going adult who just wanted a good comedy starring the comedic A-list of the day. To drive home the point, the movie did flop terribly, even if it’s not exactly remembered as being a failure on the scale of Waterworld or The 13th Warrior. It lost $32 million and its reception even caused Dan Aykroyd to write a letter of apology to the entire cast, taking the blame for the movie’s failure. In his Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin, with the usual squeamishness of mainstream film critics when they’re forced to approach movies that are unapologetically weird but not at all pretentious, unequivocally denounced the whole thing, from the stereotypical depiction of the “Brazillionaires” to being about a “hideous, grotesque nightmare world.”

I can’t help but ask, somewhat indignantly, why is a “hideous, grotesque nightmare world” a problem for you?

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For the sake of my own sanity, before writing this I scoured the Internet for just one positive review. I finally found one by Peter Trbovich, which deems Nothing But Trouble “a Kafkaesque pitch-black comedy that will be the first (and so far only) Industrial Gothic movie.” I think Rob Zombie has taken up that legacy, but, regardless, I generally agree and I believe Peter Trbovich hits on why I still like, even love, this movie despite the persistent hate-dom it gets. The way it straddles the line between trashy hillbilly horror in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vein and a comedy that’s equal measures dry and goofy, the elaborate sets that invoke H.P. Lovecraft better than some Lovecraft adaptations, and the purely gross comedy around the Judge’s gruesome body that makes me think of what it would be like if Clive Barker made comedies instead of horror and dark fantasy…these are all reasons why I will stand against the whole world, or at least the whole Internet, to defend this hideous, unloved darling.

At the same time, I would never call anyone an unredeemable normie for hating it (although something about Nathan Rabin’s review, to be honest, rubs me the wrong way personally since he seems to be an awfully bad sport for someone who built his career on finding gems among flops and b-movies). Its tone slips and slides all over the place, Chevy Chase is giving his performance his usual Caddyshack II-style apathy, and, well, it really is perhaps too weird for its own good, especially if you’re still expecting a typical big-budget comedy from the era. Mr. Bonestripper, the backyard roller coaster of death, is easily the most famous concept of the movie, but it barely touches the iceberg of the bizarre that Nothing But Trouble has to offer.

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Still, I can’t help but wonder if Nothing But Trouble has actually aged well, even if the core gag about yuppies being terrorized lost its relevance years ago (although arguably poverty-stricken, opioid-soaked, and wrecked-by-Wall Street rural America has become a bit more like Valkenvania, and I say that as a native of rural America). It’s hard to imagine a movie like this getting a sizeable studio budget in 1991, much less in 2017, when quirky and visionary “middle-budget” films are practically extinct and studios hedge their bets on existing franchises, remakes, reboots, and paint-by-numbers action films and comedies that can rely on either built-in fan bases, well-researched and poll-tested audiences,  or on overseas markets. Nothing But Trouble definitely isn’t a movie made for any demographically concrete or studio researched audience, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Dead Dudes in the House (1989)

Pop culture junkies like me usually have some forgotten bit of entertainment stuck in the wastelands of our memory, which we can only remember one scene or a few lines from but cannot recall the title no matter what.

For many years, I was tormented by memories of some movie I caught when I was very young on the USA Network. By the way, this was back in the glorious halcyon days when USA showed quite a lot of b-movies, instead of endless Law & Order: SVU reruns. All I could remember was that it was a haunted house movie with a ghost-zombie-something old lady who went around killing some twentysomethings, but the only scene I could remember was when one of the victims climbed a ladder up to a window and the old lady chopped off his hands while he was dangling from the window sill.

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I wondered if my mind might have just made it up, or conflated two or more different movies, but one day while consulting the Google oracle I found the movie did indeed exist, and it was called…Dead Dudes in the House? …Whaaaaaat?

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If the title makes you imagine amateur rappers fighting off zombies invading a house party while busting rhymes, well, I would have assumed the same. But it turns out my cinematic white whale was one of countless low-budget movies made by people who couldn’t afford a distribution deal and let their movies get snatched up by Troma. For reasons only Toxie knows, it was repackaged as some kind of horror-comedy riff on House Party, even though the movie’s cast is lily white, the only music is when one of the victims-to-be sings some rock song and another whistles “Jimmy Crack Corn”, they aren’t all dudes, the (deliberate) comedy is minimal, and, of course, no one on Troma’s box cover actually appears in the film.

So what kind of blast from the past did I end up with? Well, despite the Troma brand and the sublimely deceptive cover, it’s actually a pretty straightforward if more than slightly odd slasher movie in a haunted house wrapping. This movie’s raison de slaughter is that a guy in his twenties, Mark (Douglas Gibson), has bought an old dilapidated house (yes, kids, there was a mythical time when people in their twenties could afford houses!) and brought a group of his friends to, about two decades before it actually became a term, help him flip it. His pals include…well, let’s face it, even by the standards of slasher movie fodder they suffer from personality deficiency disorder, so I called them Jerk Woman, Jerk Man I, Jerk Man II, Nerdy Man, Nice Man, and Nice Woman.

Jerk Man I proves he is worthy of the title when he needlessly smashes a tombstone near the house’s front door and soon afterward Nice Woman discovers a noose in a tree while the crew finds that the front door is jammed. This inspires some foreshadowy banter (Jerk Man II: “Maybe you woke her up, man!” Jerk Man I: “Maybe [the door] is trying to tell you people something!” Nice Woman: “I’d hate to die by hanging!”) To be fair, Nice Woman is actually killed by an electric saw to the back. Touche, Dead Dudes in the House, touche.

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They quickly find that they have much more to worry about than splinters and 1989’s volatile housing market. The doors and windows have become supernaturally sealed and not only is Mark murdered by a mysterious  old woman, but he came back undead and malevolent. To their credit, the crew quickly work out what’s going on, wasting no time on arbitrary skepticism. They also get points for sticking together (not that it does too much good, since their would-be killer has the power to separate them by causing doors to slam shut and become unbreakable). Unfortunately, Nice Woman loses any and all points for falling for the oldest trick in the book: your undead, corrupted boyfriend, despite showing pretty obviously fatal injuries, requesting a hug just before you can go get help.

Also Two Dumb Teenagers from the surrounding rural area enter the mix, for no reason other than they were bored and decided to break into the local haunted house (to be fair, given that I am from a rural area myself, I can testify that, yes, teenagers do get that bored). They too get no points for apparently thinking it’s a good idea to go directly to the source of the singing in a house that should be completely abandoned and engage the strange woman in a casual conversation. No, sorry, I don’t care if she was willing to show her breasts!

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Thanks to the requisite newspaper clipping they stumble across, the gang learns the nature of their tormentor. Forty years ago, an elderly widow named Abigail Leatherby (Douglas Gibson, in what despite the movie’s obscurity should be remembered as one of the greatest dual roles in cinematic history) living with her adult daughter Anna was attacked and viciously stabbed by a home invader. Abigail barely survived, but lost her sanity, and one day murdered a visiting neighbor in the exact same fashion she’d been attacked. A few days later, Abigail died from a heart attack, and Anna buried her on the property before hanging herself. (In one of my favorite touches in the film, Jerk Guy I grins with macabre delight as he hears the saga of Abigail and Anna Leatherby). As is the nature of these films, no explanation as to how poor Abigail Leatherby got borderline godlike powers to terrorize anyone unfortunate to cross her path is forthcoming, but whatever. It’s an elderly woman who can hold her own against Mike Myers and Jason Vorhees! With that kind of a deceptively frail powerhouse working against them, can the surviving fixer-upper crew and Dumb Teenager make it out alive? I won’t spoil it, but I will say you do get an old woman/buff young guy fistfight before the credits roll!

Whenever I talk to people about why I love b-movies and low-budget gems, I try to explain that it’s because they offer some quirky element you won’t likely find in a mainstream production, especially not from the risk-averse and franchise-addicted Hollywood of today. Dead Dudes in the House is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The weirdness of the killer being an old woman (albeit a young guy in heavy makeup) is just the start; instead of being a jokester like so many ’80s killers, she has a wonderfully matter-of-fact approach, with the occasional glimpse of sadistic satisfaction in her hobby.

In fact, this casual exchange between her and one of her victims, Nerdy Guy, where she tries to get him to follow her to his doom, isn’t just my favorite moment in the movie, but would easily rank in the top three in any list of favorite slasher movie scenes.

“Come on.”
“What?”
“It’s your turn.”
“…What do you mean?”
“It’s your turn.”

Okay, the acting is…well, what you’d expect (although for a movie this obscure quite a few members of the cast did go on to have fairly solid careers), and it gets obvious pretty quickly that the crew didn’t have the budget or the know-how for sufficient lighting for the house they were filming in. However, there were some pretty well-paced and downright suspenseful sequences in this film, like Jerk Woman’s gradual discovery of the fate of Mark and Nerdy Guy trying (and failing) desperately to work up the nerve to follow and fight Abigail.

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Granted, the pacing falls back to a snail’s pace in the climax, which really comes across as bloated, especially compared to how well the movie gets down to business in the first two acts. Luckily the film saves some pretty good and gory practical effects for its denouement. Nor are the filmmakers slouches in the creative deaths department.

When I saw this movie as a child, it genuinely freaked me out, even though my precocious self had already been exposed to the oeuvres of Freddy and Jason. I can’t say that Abigail Leatherby stalks me in my dreams now that I am an adult, but honestly I found this lost piece of my youth worth the quest for its rediscovery. It’s just a fun, somewhat off-kilter slasher movie you can catch on YouTube (along with Troma’s other releases) if you got an hour and a half to burn. And while it’s got nothing to do with late ’80s/early ’90s hip-hop, if you got an itch for a slasher flick where the killer is an elderly widow, this will definitely scratch it.

 

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Black Scorpion (1995)

If there’s one valid complaint about the current superhero boom, it’s the lack of superheroines. Given that Hollywood producers really are dumb enough to look back to the failure of Catwoman and even Supergirl as proof that audiences won’t take any superhero film with a female lead, it’s understandable this has been the dark underbelly of the current nerd utopia. Pop culture critics often lament the lack of good female superhero movies from not just the present-day crop, but from the ’90s, but while their complaints are legit, they usually overlook one gem: 1995’s Black Scorpion.

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Okay, okay, honestly in a couple of ways it’s more of a ’90s, Cinemax-style b-movie (complete with token laughing and vaguely ethnic Death Wish 3-esque thugs!) than a superhero movie. And I don’t think you have to be a tumblr regular or Twitter crusader to perhaps be taken a little aback by a superheroine movie where you can easily make a drinking game out of the gratuitous topless women and where the star’s superhero costume was so tight she had to literally be sewn into it. Last but far from least, it should be mentioned this was a production of Roger Corman’s New Horizons company, with all that entails.

And yet, it would be wrong to just write this off as Roger Corman’s attempt to cash in on the Burton Batman movies, true as it may be. In fact, I have to admit this is one of my favorite b-movies and superhero movies…unironically, even.

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If you judge it as a superhero film, it’s honestly pretty good if you can look past its straight-to-video ’90s b-movie DNA. Despite its kink leather exterior, it hits that sweet spot between the cynical faux-mature darkness of a Zack Snyder joint and the hyper-self-conscious and studio-ordained camp of a Joel Schumacher Batman film. What else can you say about a movie where the titular superheroine manages to jury-rig a taser to give her the power to not only shoot electrical bolts through a ring, but somehow jump twenty feet in the air?

After all, poor Black Scorpion (Joan Severance) has to make do since she doesn’t have the wealth or resources of a Batman. Her alter-ego Darcy Walker is a cop in Los Ange-sorry, ”Angel City” whose undercover investigation as a prostitute to bust a murderous pimp goes awry thanks to a small foul-up by her partner and crush Michael (Bruce Abbott). Things go from bad to worse when the pimp beats up a prostitute Darcy had befriended and vowed to protect, Tender Lovin’ (Terri J. Vaughn), and Darcy’s father, Stan (Rick Russovich), a disgraced ex-cop, is murdered at apparent random by a district attorney. Feeling powerless, Darcy, inspired by an old moral fable about a scorpion and a frog her father told her when she was a little girl, becomes a vigilante, the Black Scorpion, who on her first night out kills the pimp. With the aid of a chop shop operator, Argyle (Garrett Morris) who just so happened to steal some high-tech military equipment, Black Scorpion extends her war to all violent criminals. Just when things are starting to go well for her new career, with her even getting a shape-shifting car and uniform thanks to Argyle, the Black Scorpion gets wrapped up in the schemes of her first supervillain, a bizarre armored figure calling himself the Breathtaker (Ed Gilbert), whose own origin story is linked to a tragic mistake made by Darcy’s father years ago.

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It’s worth pointing out the movie was scripted by Roger Corman go-to screenwriter, Craig J. Nevius, who also did the script for Roger Corman’s more well-known foray into superheroics, 1994’s Fantastic Four, which the Cinema Snob persuasively defended as not as bad as its underground reputation, especially in light of more recent and much, much more bigger-budgeted adaptations of Marvel’s First Family. Like that Fantastic Four, Black Scorpion does at least have the signs of being crafted by someone who actually understands and, well, likes superhero comics.

Yes, the movie does have something of a bleak tinge to it, but it never insists on its own edginess. While Black Scorpion does kill people and uses a gun (although in the last act she does show compassion to her father’s killer), her opponents include a female pro-wrestling duo who Joan Severance battles (doing her own stunts, no less!) in a genuinely memorable fight scene. Plus it’s just delightful to have a movie like this with dialogue like, “This might be a good opportunity to use some of those experimental devices on these trauma patients.” Or foreshadowing so unapologetically blatant it includes Michael telling Darcy in the beginning that her horoscope (for a Scorpio, natch) promised a change and new additions to her wardrobe, with Tender Lovin’ soon advising, ”Maybe there’s another you that you don’t know about!”

Just don’t ask why Darcy’s police precinct includes two men in completely civilian garb who carry guns and appear at active crime scenes who everyone calls “the rookies.” Or if it’s a deliberate joke when Argyle says his super-tech empowered car “reorganizes atoms at a molecular level.” Dear Neil deGrasse Tyson, I hope it’s a joke.

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Really, it’s all the little touches that still sells me on Black Scorpion. Like Black Scorpion, thanks to Argyle’s influence, having to address her fancy car computer with “Yo, computer!” Or that in one scene you can hear one news report on Black Scorpion beginning with “In other news, W.A.M. – Women’s Assertive Movement – has named that masked vigilante the Black Scorpion their woman of the year. But while the feminist group supports her independent spirit, they admit to being less enthusiastic about her costume or lack thereof” and continuing as Darcy and Michael talk with talking heads debating whether or not Black Scorpion’s crime-fighting is undermined by her choice of costume.

My own favorite bit, though, is the Breathtaker’s response to the inevitable “You’re insane!” remark. He just muses, “Am I? It’s quite possible. Being dead for 13 minutes can do that to you. Not enough oxygen to the brain.”

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It helps that the movie is helmed by Joan Severancewho is really quite good at handling the lead role even if the movie is a bit too free for its own credibility with exploiting her, um, other assetsand it works to the movie’s benefit that she’s teamed up with the delightful Garrett Morris, who gets plenty of moments thrown his way like his reaction to finding out that Black Scorpion is not, in fact, black. The rest of the cast isn’t quite as memorable, although at least “the rookies” aren’t given quite enough screen time to reach critical Odious Comic Relief mass and Stephen Lee gets in a couple of good scenes as a send-up of the stereotypical action movie police chiefonly without the temper, but twice the stress and a chain-smoking habit.

Even Darcy’s relationship with Michael has a ring of authenticity, in spite of occasionally forced and tone-deaf dialogue, including Michael flat-out admitting he has the hots for Black Scorpion to Darcy’s face! (I’m no expert in love, but that seems like a no-no, mysterious vigilante for a crush or no). Avid watchers of superhero films and readers of comics might also be delightedor slightly offendedat how the Black Scorpion resolves the classic “my love interest has fallen in love with my alter-ego” dilemma, by breaking into his apartment and having sex with him in costume and then branding him. Somehow I don’t think that would have worked between Batman and Vicki Vale.

blackscorpion5So in the more sensitive climate of the mid-2010s, I can see why enlightened fans of the superhero genre might not want to declare Black Scorpion with its ’90s late-night cable sensibilities as a lost female superhero gem. Still, I think that’s a mistake. Not unlike Corman’s Fantastic Four, it actually conjures up the spirit of the genre better than certain big-budget adaptations I could name (…especially one that’s been recently released as of this writing to many groans). Even though Corman’s attempts to turn it into a franchiseincluding a sequel, a comic book series that only lasted four issues, and a Sci-Fi Channel series from 2001 that survived just one universally panned seasonflopped, at the least the first Black Scorpion film simply deserves to be remembered.

And maybe we can give another Black Scorpion comic series, this time by someone like Gail Simone, a go? The comics industry is a poorer place without a female, working-class Batman!

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: It’s Your Move

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As hard as it is to deny that cultural gatekeepers from Hollywood to Doubleday screw up and pass on or outright kill a good project, there are few gems in the cultural landfill. This is even true in the notoriously cutthroat world of network TV. For every Profit or Firefly or Korgoth of Barbaria, there’s at least three Heil Honey I’m Home!s. And if a show is acclaimed but wound up in the slaughterhouse before its second season, it usually ends up a cult classic with more acclaim than even shows that had much longer runs. For an obvious example, it’s a safe bet that people won’t stop hailing Firefly and whining about its treatment by the network until the Earth is consumed by the expanding, dying sun.

So it’s always a rare and wonderful hipster-y thing when you know of a show that’s genuinely very good, never met cult hit status, and yet had its life cut short by executive decree. My own cherished diamond in the rough is It’s Your Move, the entire first, last, and only season of which can be viewed (as of this writing) on YouTube thanks to the Internet’s tireless pop culture preservationists. The show was the second brainchild of producer duo Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt, conceived between The Jeffersons and Married…With Children (I bet you – yes, you – didn’t know that, did you? Now that episode of Married… where Peg and Marcy try to drag Al and Jefferson (get it?) to a Jeffersons nostalgia stage show makes more sense!).

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Oh, and the star of the show is a 15-year old Jason Bateman, of “Totally ducking the child star curse” fame.

But besides the element of hindsight what still makes this show stand out is its premise. Matthew Burton (Bateman) is a juvenile con-artist who sells term papers among other things, but covertly gives all the money he illicitly makes to his struggling single mother Eileen (Caren Kaye). Matthew hopes that his mother will marry Mort, a sleazy lumber magnate who will nonetheless keep his mother set for life, and has been driving away all of her less financially secure suitors. Unfortunately for Matthew, an unsuccessful writer named Norman Lamb (David Garrison, whom Leavitt and Moye would bring with them to Married… as Steve Rhodes) has just moved into their apartment building. What Norman lacks in published works he makes up for wits, and proves a match for Matthew’s schemes to drive him out of his mother’s life.

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In a medium and a genre mocked for reheating old premises ad nauseam, it’s a really clever concept for a show, albeit one that might have been hard to sustain for more than a few seasons. The jokes might not seem all that noteworthy today, but in a time oversaturated with family-friendly sitcoms they had that edge that would later carve out a special place for Married…With Children. You can see the resemblance in dialogue like this:

Eli (a friend of Matthew’s): Gee, I wish I had a sister to torture.
Matthew: Ah, use your imagination.  You got a grandmother!

Matthew: Hey, guys today wouldn’t know class if it came up and bit them.
Eileen: I’ve tried.
Matthew: Huh?
Eileen: Nothing.  Nothing.

Matthew: How about calling Mort?  You got his number?
Eileen: Oh yeah.  He makes it very easy. You just dial ZOOLIFE and there he is.

That’s right, two sex jokes in a conversation between a woman and her teenage son!

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Besides the fact that I do think the show is genuinely funny, if perhaps not as distinctive now as it was in 1984 and 1985, it’s really well acted with fleshed-out characters who manage to leave an impression even in the span of 24 minutes. David Garrison is admittedly more or less playing Steve Rhodes here, but his rivalry with Matthew clicks, even if by necessity it and his interest in Eileen are rushed a bit. Matthew himself is a strong center, who gives the show more of a heart than you might expect, more so than Married… anyway with the exception of a few episodes. He goes from conning people to gently urging his mother not to be down herself, showing compassion without losing his core as a genius grifter-in-training.

Speaking of which, it’s the relationship between Matthew and his mother that’s really the most interesting part of the show, at least in the pilot. Without getting too unnatural or precocious, the two have a relationship of familial equals that promised to be a core of the show. The exception is Julie, who is a bit too much the “bossy older sister” archetype, although she too gets a moment where she shows she genuinely sympathizes with Matthew’s motives, just not his methods.

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Fans of Married…With Children might catch glimpses of the show to come, aside from a proto-Steve Rhodes in the spotlight. Eileen’s life of financial and romantic desperation and even the clever Norman Lamb’s status as a failed writer-in-denial are all part of a “comedy of failures” that’s similar to the Bundys’ universe. Matthew and Julie’s interactions are Bud-and-Kelly-esque, but on a slightly more subtle level there’s the underlying idea of streetsmart teens heavily armed with a very adult cynicism.

So why didn’t It’s Your Move get a second season?  The Wikipedia oracle claims it was largely if not entirely because the show was put up against Dynasty. That may very well be, but I suspect its premise was too much to carry. Even the great sitcoms have premises you can spell out in a tiny blurb; not so much with It’s Your Move. It’s tempting to say that this show was before its time and might have thrived in our current “golden age” of television, but I can’t easily imagine it working as a sitcom on a network even today, unless it was put on as “prestige television” on HBO or Showtime, or got retooled as a comedrama.

But luckily, especially if you’re a Married…With Children or a Jason Bateman fan, you can and should dig out this gem for yourself.

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Comics, The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Satan’s Six (1993)

Let me begin by saying this:  Jack Kirby was a genius, in every sense of the word.

Vintage Kirby.

Kirby was also astonishingly prolific, having an entire portfolio of ideas from the ’70s and ’80s that were never truly completed, much less adopted into print.  Along came Topps Comics, a subsidiary of the trading card company of the same name and one of the practically countless companies that mushroomed in the comics boom of the early ’90s (and withered away in the crash of the late ’90s/early ’00s).  With an eye toward long-time readers of comics, Topps licensed some of Kirby’s old concepts to form the basis for the company’s very own “Kirbyverse.”  Granted most of the titles under the Kirbyverse umbrella would be written and drawn by people who were distinctly not Jack Kirby, who would pass away the year after “Satan’s Six” was published, but these were still concepts from the same mind that gave us the X-Men, the New Gods, the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Newsboy Legion, and Destroyer Duck.

One of those unused concepts that probably lied in a file cabinet in Kirby’s home for many years was “Satan’s Six,” which is a great title however you cut it.  Kirby had come up with the premise, most of the character concepts, and had even scripted and drew eight pages.  When Topps picked up the license, they had Tony Isabella (probably best known for his run on “Ghost Rider” and as the creator of DC Comics’ “Black Lightning”) write a script incorporating Kirby’s pages with art by John Cleary (who didn’t do much outside this series, except some work for Image Comics in the early-mid ’90s).  Whatever Kirby originally envisioned with this series, and info on what “The King” himself had in mind with “Satan’s Six” is surprisingly scarce, the published result was, in spite of the title, a light-hearted comedic romp, just about the adventures of a group of wayward souls trying to earn passage into Hell.

Topps certainly treated the comic like a fan’s dream event, having big names like Frank Miller, Terry Austin, and Steve Ditko ink single pages while the pages Kirby originally drew and scripted were included in full (albeit far from seamlessly).  But…did it merit such attention by so many greats?

I will say that, out of all of Kirby’s ideas brought to light by Topps, “Satan’s Six” is easily the most distinctive.  The eponymous six include five human souls from different locales and time periods – a narcissistic knight from King Arthur’s court, a dancer from a Babylonian temple, a Victorian mad scientist, a Zulu warrior disgraced for refusing to harm animals, and a hard-luck gambler from Prohibition-era America – who were all neither virtuous enough to ascend to Heaven or evil enough to be sentenced to Hell.  Desperate to end their time in eternity’s waiting room, they all demand entry into Hell at least.  A low-level manager of the Abyss finally relents and offers to let them into Hell if they return to Earth and help corrupt souls.  At the London nightclub they’re stationed at, they’re finally joined by their “sixth”, a demon with a fondness for heavy artillery  named Frightful.  Meanwhile the angel Priscilla, who has responsibilities over “comic book characters” (they’re real, except they’re not, but…oh, whatever) has plans to intervene and instead redeem the five, no matter what Frightful and his employers intend…

It’s a fun premise that takes a fairly dark concept – I mean, imagine a group of people so fed up with a bland, desolate afterlife they’re eager to go to Hell, and that same group who without hesitation sign up for a job of leading others into damnation – and builds a zany comedy from it.  It’s perfectly possible to have something light-hearted and militantly goofy from even the idea of eternal punishment – after all, Looney Toons had plenty of blunt references to the Devil and Hell – and in the grimdark, macho atmosphere of early ’90s comics “Satan’s Six” still stands out as a nice change of pace.  Also it is true that the comic was clearly written for diehard fans;  hell, the very first couple of pages include a rather touching tribute to Joe Shuster.

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So why was “Satan’s Six” a failure, destined only to be remembered by Kirby fans?

Well, there are plenty of theories.  One is that fans were willing to lay down money for something drawn and written by The King, but not old concepts of his handled totally by other people, no matter how well-known or talented in their own right.  Another is that Topps failed to stand out in a market that was already oversaturated and being dominated by newcomers like Image/Wildstorm and Valiant.  These are probably true, but for me…well, look at the page above and behold the teeth.  

I don’t get any delight from blaming the failure of a collaborative work on any single person, but John Cleary’s contribution is…to put it in polite academic-ese, problematic.  For starters, saying his style is somewhat influenced by Todd McFarlene is like saying that Oreo cookies are slightly derivative of Hydrox cookies (and no, it’s not the other way around).  Then there’s…the teeth.  But it’s not just the teeth, it’s that even when his characters are just talking they look like they’re screaming or at least they appear like they’re trying to hold a conversation in the middle of a bowel movement.

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Keep in mind, this is just during a normal conversation!

It’s not even so much the questionable art choices – after all, this is the era when Rob Liefeld became famous enough that Marvel was willing to hand most of its major properties over to the tender mercies of his pen – but what it’s up against.  Compare what’s above to something from Jack Kirby’s original pages:

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Put aside arguments about quality;  the styles are so different they don’t even seem to belong in the same galaxy, much less the same pages in the same comic.  Couldn’t they have hired an artist who would or could closely imitate Kirby’s style?  Would that have been so difficult?  It’s not like Jack Kirby was the single most influential comic book artist of all time.

To be more positive, Tony Isabella does what he can with what he has.   There are some good gags and one-liners, even if the jokes about Arthurian knight Brian’s megalomania make him out less to be a lovable oaf and more an unpleasant sociopath (much like latter-day Homer Simpson, actually) and the Babylonian dancer Dezira is a receptacle for dumb blonde jokes so ancient they probably were uttered in the comedy clubs of Babylon (although, Dezira’s existence notwithstanding, did the have blondes in Babylon?).  Honestly, at the risk of blaspheming the King, I think some of the key flaws from the writing front come straight from the original concept.  The protagonists really are terribly one-note – literally the only thing we learn about member Harrigan is that he was a gambler from the 1930s – and the subject matter is maybe treated too lightly even in the outlines.  Maybe it would have worked better in the ’70s when you had weird and PG-rated yet still edgy occult concepts like Marvel’s “Son of Satan”, and as far as I know maybe comics like that were the original inspiration, but in a grittier medium that had known the pitch-black comedy of Marshal Law and Milk & Cheese, a comic with a premise like this one demanded somewhat darker tones.

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Jack Kirby be with you, Satan’s Six. Even he couldn’t save you from being filtered through the warped sensibilities of ’90s comics.

Like I said, if you look at it from a certain angle or maybe while standing on your head it does look like an early satire of ’90s comics.  Brian the knight kind of does come across as a parody of the macho ’90s superhero.  But that might be reading too much into it, and the fact of the matter remains that even an industry veteran like Tony Isabella couldn’t figure out how to take a half-finished concept from Jack Kirby and make it into something that would fit into the medium as it stood in the ’90s and at the exact same time hearken back to the glory days of one of the greatest minds to work in comics and, honestly, any medium.

Oh well, at least the issue also has a “Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre” strip drawn by Steve Ditko.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Nightmare Cafe (1992)

Apologies (again) for going off the radar.  As always, summer is a busy time for me, and it hit harder than I expected this time.  I can’t promise I’ll be able to update regularly, since I’ll be out of the country for most of next month and I have no idea if I’ll have regular WiFi access in that time, but I’ll do what I can.

In the meantime…

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Somehow “All Nightmare” Cafe seems the more intimidating name.

Nightmare Cafe is one of the reasons I’m in this (non-paying) business.  I vaguely remember watching an episode way back when I was a lil’ trash culture anthropologist.  I’m not exactly sure why, but the memory of the show stuck with me, probably because even then I was into horror so the title stuck out for me.   These are the kinds of cultural memories that I feel compelled to pursue, in hopes of unearthing some buried gem.  The fact that both Wes Craven (albeit only at the margins) and Robert Englund were involved really made it worth revisitng for me.  So, bottom line, I really wanted to like it, but there’s only so much that Englund playing a thinly disguised Satan named “Blackie”…

I could watch a 3 hour film that's just Englund playing the Devil.

I could watch a 3 hour film that’s just Englund playing the Devil.

Information online about the show is scarce, but from what I pieced together Craven originally wanted to make an anthology series, but decided – with or without studio interference – to have regular characters who interact with the plot.  See, the titular “Nightmare Cafe” is some kind of sentient cosmic being in place form that is dedicated to punishing or rewarding (of course, in the show’s short six-episode run, we see a lot more of the former) individuals.  The cafe’s spokesman is Englund’s character, Blackie, who is strongly implied to be Satan – but not the Prince of Darkness Satan, rather the Old Testament Satan of the Book of Job fame, whose job is to test the morals and ethics of humanity.  The first episode has Blackie test and ultimately enlist as its cook and waitress  two lost souls, a security guard tempted into allowing something unethical to take place in order to save his job, Frank, and a woman who committed suicide out of frustrated love, Fay.  All of this is set up in the first episode, and the show does take a dark turn by making it clear that, no, the two leads do technically die.  However, it’s here that the first show takes its first misstep by resolving everything that went wrong in Fay and Frank’s lives immediately.  Of course, this is long before X-Filesstyle long-term story arcs became all the craze, but I like to think that even to audiences in 1992 Fay and Mark’s lack of a real story arc looked like a lost opportunity.

But, first, what the show has going for it:  it has a pretty good premise.  Granted it might have worked better as the anthology series Craven envisioned, with the cafe and maybe Blackie as the only recurring elements, but it’s a pretty open-ended concept that could allow for all kinds of tales.  Yet most of the episodes, including the pilot, seem to be aiming for a retro hardboiled detective/film noir vibe, albeit one that’s smoothed down for the uptight sensibilities of early ’90s network TV.  And honestly, while I think the show could have worked if the cafe and Blackie were the only supernatural elements in most episodes, it’s just not that interesting, especially since the cafe itself usually winds up feeling extraneous, a guest star in its own show.

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Have I mentioned how awesome Robert Englund is, though?

The big exception was the sixth and last episode to air, “Aliens Ate My Lunch.”  It’s…well, saying it’s tongue in cheek is kind of an understatement.  The cafe teleports (oh yeah, the cafe can teleport anywhere) to a rural community where aliens have been allegedly stealing cows.  Blackie (in one of the episode’s few truly funny sequences, because, you know, Robert Englund) sets up a sleazy tabloid reporter Harry Tambor to cover the story.  Frank’s also revealed to be a huge admirer of Harry because…well, I guess they have to get the main cast invested in the story somehow.  That’s really where the show messed up its premise.  Almost every  story ended up personally involving Fay and Frank in some way;  one story involves Fay’s sister, one has a woman Frank has fallen for, another has the cafe teleport to Frank’s hometown…Frank and Fay just weren’t meant to be much more than just the audience’s connection to the cafe, and it simply feels awkward to see them instead carry the narrative.

Anyway, I forgot to mention, there’s a trope of little people with broad eastern European accents.  Now I’m the sort of person who rolls their eyes at every “progressive” blog post that complains about Game of Thrones for depicting a medieval-style fantasy society that treats women much like real world medieval societies, or will even defend a genocide or rape joke (as long as it’s in “good bad taste”, of course), but there’s just something off about this one, especially since most of the “humor” from these scenes can be summed up as, “They’re little people…with eastern European accents!”  Just imagine Homer Simpson saying that while bellowing laughter and you’ll know what I mean.

It's a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

It’s a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

Well, the plot is that Harry enlists the trope into helping him fake a UFO sighting.  It’s really at this point that you realize that they could have done this whole story without any of the show’s principals, and then you notice that this show that’s ostensibly about the power of karma and second chances for the deserving has a story about midgets helping a tabloid reporter con a bunch of farmers into thinking a UFO has been kidnapping their cows.  To be fair, things speed up and the Nightmare Cafe clique get dragged into the plot when they’re all menaced by a lynch mob led by the most ludicrously corrupt rural sheriff this side of Boss Hogg.  You can get why the cafe inevitably punishes the triggerhappy, jerkass sheriff, but it punishes Harry too, for some reason.  I mean, sure, he tried to deceive an entire community (for no reason at all, since he already had the story about the very real cattle disappearances, but whatever), but what else did he do?  Make a career out of writing “Batboy Impregnates Paris Hilton” style articles?  Does that really call upon the cosmic intervention of this all-powerful cafe?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being too uptight about what’s obviously meant to be an intergalactic farce.  After all, the little people turn out to be the real aliens (come on, if you didn’t see that one coming, then you don’t watch enough TV!).  Plus the missing cows are okay, their organs not at all removed and dissected to help further some alien plan to invade Earth, and are returned, since they just wanted to go to Mars, or something.  The cafe torments the sheriff and Harry a bit, and the episode – and the series – closes out with a couple of hints about the nature of the cafe and Blackie and the revelation that Fay and Frank can both die (again), all of which, of course, will never be followed up on.

“Aliens Ate My Lunch” managed to simultaneously be a revelation of the show’s potential and an explanation as to why it failed.  On the plus side, it did do a much better job of showing the premise”s potential than the earlier episodes and their fixation on genre formula.  In the negative column, the whole affair is just a hodgepodge of creaky gags and the mildly surreal, which just all seems to hang loosely from the entire framework of the show.  All six episodes are up on YouTube, so I still encourage people to watch because, hey, you got nothing to lose but time.

Still, I have to admit, if you want to see Robert Englund as the Devil, I have to recommend instead the gloriously goofy “Damn Bundys” episode from “Married With Children”‘s last season.  

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: The MOTHER Trilogy

Okay, admittedly, the MOTHER games (best known to North American gamers by the name of the second game in the seriesEarthbound) are probably relatively well-known.  They definitely do have a diehard following, even by the standards of gamer fandoms.  Still, at least among casual gamers, I don’t think they’re nearly as well known as other famous JRPG series, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.  

ImagePart of this is because, even after JRPGs have delved more into the realms of sci-fi and urban fantasy, MOTHER stands out.  Instead of gunblade-wielding soldiers and magic-users exploring mystic forests or high-tech floating cities, all three games feature kids with psychic powers adventuring through contemporary cities and suburbs, battling such exotic enemies as hippies, “unassuming local guys”, big piles of puke, and half-chicken half-snake monsters.

As you might expect from that choice of enemies, the trilogy has a sense of humor.  Joke items abound, townspeople spout dialogue like “I also helped in the battle.  I threw my slippers at the beast.  Maybe you didn’t notice,” and in MOTHER 2 a.k.a. Earthbound the towns have a cute sequence of names like Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside.  Even the names of the protagonists of the first two games, ‘Ninten’ and ‘Ness,’ are a fourth wall-shattering referential gag.  However, it’s a mistake to think MOTHER is just one big satire/homage to JRPGs.  The games were devised by Shigesato Itoi, a beloved essayist and songwriter in Japan, as a serious storytelling experiment after he first played Dragon Quest and was disappointed by the game’s lack of a story but impressed by the potential of the genre.  Under the surface of the cartoonish graphics and the frequent gags, the games explore the issues of the alienation and loss of community inherent to modern life, how evil arises out of a self-repeating cycle of loneliness and resentment, mankind’s destructive manipulation of the natural world, and the folly of nostalgia.  To give you an idea of how intense the trilogy can get, there’s the fact that the final boss fight of Earthbound was inspired by a film scene Itoi was traumatized by as a child, which he thought was a rape.

If you’re into console RPGs at all, or hell don’t absolutely loathe the medium, the games are worth a try.  Admittedly the first MOTHER is the weakest in the series, and even Itoi admits that the game was made more difficult than it should have been because part of it was rushed.   Mother 2 and 3, though, cannot be fully appreciated in isolation from each other, and would be considered classics by the standards of any medium.  Itoi sought to show that video games could tell an emotionally engaging story.  He more than succeeded.

Now unfortunately just getting your hands on the MOTHER games is harder than it should be.  Earthbound has yet to be released on the Wii Virtual Console, allegedly because of music rights issues (the bane of so many fans who just want to legally complete their collections), and naturally I wouldn’t be one to say that ROMs of the game are just a quick Google search away (cough).  MOTHER 1 and were never officially released in the US either, but there is a ROM copy of a completed but unreleased American localization circulating around the Internet with the title Earthbound Zero.  Also, of course, you can find a (very good!) fan translation of Mother 3 here.  

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