Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cult Classics: Howling II

"It's not over yet," but you'll wish it was

The Howling is one of the best horror films of the 1980s and, alongside An American Werewolf in London, set an extremely high bar for the werewolf genre, one that's rarely been met since. It was directed by an energetic and creative filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of horror and genre films, Joe Dante, and its script was rewritten and improved by a young John Sayles. The Howling has a fine pedigree. It's sequel, 1985's Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, is another story altogether. It's a hot mess, composed of poorly executed horror, atrocious acting (with one notable exception), and utterly forgettable werewolf effects. It lacks the original's intelligence, humor, and a willingness to poke fun at horror genre tropes and conventions. However, while The Howling will always be one of my favorite horror films, there is something so endearing about the sequel's steadfast pursuit of ineptitude that it'll always hold a place in my heart too. It's a perfect b-movie to watch, and laugh at, late at night. In fact, that's how I first stumbled across it as a freshman in high school: it was the featured flick of the night on USA Up All Night, a show I watched religiously on Friday and Saturday nights. As a high school freshman with a social life practically on life support, I instead had Up All Night's host Rhonda Shear and the channel's deep vault of bad movies to fill the void.

Let's go back to the title for a minute, because I kind of buried the lead here. Look at that subtitle again: Your Sister Is a Werewolf. I challenge you to say that aloud without bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Whereas Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo is the most gloriously goofy movie sequel title of all time, Howling II might take the prize for most unforgettable. It's so ludicrous you can't help but love it, plus it's telling you in no uncertain terms what you're in store for. Things are gonna get weird and things are also gonna get stupid. I remember being floored by the name when I tuned into Up All Night that evening. Here was a movie with absolutely no pretense to greatness. It was a true b-movie, one designed for late-night cable viewings where its, shall we say, unsubtle charms would be most appreciated by an audience of bad movie aficionados.

Christopher Lee, not only a horror movie icon but also a new wave fan

So, you might be wondering, what's the plot? Honestly, it's irrelevant. All you need to know is that it stars b-movie legend Sybil Danning as Stirba, bisexual witch queen of the werewolves, and horror icon Christopher Lee as the mysterious werewolf hunter who drives what little plot their is here. Lee also utters the film's subtitle early on, while accosting the brother of Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone's character from The Howling) at the cemetery after the man just buried his sister. Dude, give the guy some time to grieve first. Lee delivers the line in a deadpan monotone that must have taken him dozens of takes to nail after cracking up over and over. Reb Brown ostensibly stars in the lead role as Ben White, bringing all of the charisma of a doorknob to his performance. With this movie, I tuned in for the title but stuck around to witness Danning and Lee turning scenery chewing into a form of high art. They both understand the key to a good b-movie performance: never take this shit seriously. Lee seems less than enthused for most of the running time--he was probably distracted by thoughts of firing his agent for bringing this role to his attention. It's endlessly entertaining to watch him slum it through this traiwreck. Danning, on the other hand, absolutely brings it. You haven't lived until you've watched Sybil Danning paw at other actors while all involved are covered in shag carpet werewolf hair and makeup. Danning imbues Stirba with an intensity and a gleeful malice that make it impossible for you ignore her. She and her portrayal of the immortal queen of the werewolves deserved better than this film, frankly. Still, she's such a star that she practically carries the entire movie on her impressively toned shoulders. There's a scene where Danning dramatically and impressively rips off her dress, which led b-movie champion Joe Bob Briggs to declare her the "Rip-Away Bra Queen." The scene is practically otherworldly and such a showstopper that the producers wisely chose to replay it—repeatedly, mind you—during the end credits. Danning is a Scream Queen for a reason, and you need look no further than Howling II to understand why.

The scene that launched a thousand school boy crushes

As I said, the plot is negligible. The film is basically a series of strange scenes strung together in an attempt to pass it off as something coherent. When our heroes travel to Transylvania to kill the queen of the werewolves, we're treated to a scene set in what is supposed to be a creepy ethnic folk festival but instead looks like a leftover set from your local middle school's severely underfunded theater department. The scenes of Stirba plotting against Lee and company in her medieval castle—with exterior shots that are intended to be ominous but in reality are nothing more than bad special effects drawings—provide Danning with some of her finest moments as she blends witchcraft and lacanthropy in one hell of an unholy union. Did I mention her iconic dress-ripping scene? Oh yeah, I did. Sorry but clearly it left quite the impression on fourteen-year old me. Danning scared the bejesus out of young me, another in a line of scary/sexy women on film who both frightened and attracted me. These were not women I encountered in daily life, that's for sure. She could have kicked my ass, but if you'd asked me back then if I'd mind that, I'm pretty sure I would have responded, "Absolutely not, sounds like fun!" I remember looking up Roger Ebert's review of the film in my copy of his mammoth book of movie reviews (this was my movie bible, which I often carried around with me in those early teen years, and yes, I'm aware of how incredibly dorky that sounds). Ebert, like me, found this one to be a wee bit lacking in most everything necessary for a good film—except for Sybil Danning's performance. Of Danning, Ebert wrote,
"I have to concede that no one presides over a ritual quite as well as Sybil Danning, especially when she is savagely ripping open the bodice of her dress. She rips the dress so dramatically, in fact, that the shot is repeated twice during the closing credits, providing the movie with its second and third interesting moments."
The bodice ripping scene is, by all accounts, the highlight of the film and also one of the signature moments in Danning's long and impressive career as a b-movie queen. And a slight correction to Ebert's review: that scene runs far more than twice in the closing credits; it's closer to ten to twelve times. My friends at school and I were not quite sure what we'd witnessed there—did she really just do that??—but we were pretty sure we liked it.

Remember when I said things were going to get weird?

Howling II deserves some respect for being exactly what it says it is on the tin: a tone-deaf sequel with only the slightest thread connecting it to another, infinitely better horror movie. You have the shared name, the fact that both films feature werewolves, and the early graveyard scene at the funeral for The Howling's Karen White (Stone's character). That's about it. Howling II is so absurd, so blissfully clueless about frivolous things like plot and character motivation, that you can't help but be drawn to it, mostly to see if it can possibly get any goofier than its title would suggest. Guess what? It can, and it does. With gusto. If you're a horror and b-movie nerd, check it out. As the saying goes, it's so bad that it's almost good. Almost.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Has it really been a year?

Completely unrelated to this post, or, clickbait: Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn

I just came to the realization that this blog started one year ago next month. In that year, our kids have grown from six to eighteen months old. While raising the Wonder Twins, my wife and I have grown a year older, but likely not any wiser, just more exhausted, frazzled, and incoherent. That and the header image remind me: anyone want to babysit for us so I can see Suicide Squad this summer? Anyway, in the last year I've also started writing for a website, Sequart, which has been terrifically fulfilling and fun. I fear it's taken what little time I have to write away from this blog, though, and for that I'm sorry. I had intended to fill this space with a mixture of things that mattered to me: the occasional personal reflection on my life, my family, and even my struggles and anxieties, along with more lighthearted pieces on pop culture and it's influence and impact on us. Well, the latter subject matter has kind of taken over this blog, mostly because it's on my mind a lot due to the articles that I'm writing for Sequart. Recently I received a review copy from St. Martin's Press for the essay collection Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life and a review copy of the buzz-worthy new novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds is on its way to me from Viking Press/Penguin Books. This means that when I write again soon, it will more than likely be in the form of reviews of these books, hopefully to finding a home at Sequart. I've realized that writing about pop culture that helps shape us is just as personal as writing about a moment from our youth that left an equally strong impression on us. It's all part of what makes up our personalities, our souls.

There's also a bit of self-preservation at work when I write what these personal reflections from a pop cultural obsessive. It's not that it's easier to write about myself while in theory writing about something else, a work of some sort, but it does provide just the slightest mask that I can still use to hide behind, just a bit. Old introverted ways die hard, or in fact never actually die, they just take brief vacations but always return home. Late last year I wrote about a summer during college, one particularly eventful time in my young life that, unbeknownst to me then, was a turning point in my life. I can look back on that summer today and realize that's when I began accelerating my growth into the person that I am now. That was a really hard piece to write. It was dredging up emotions and memories I hadn't thought of in ages. They were almost universally good memories, but it's still hard to look back at your younger self and see who you were, warts and all, on full display. But I want to try it again someday, and this blog is the spot where I'll do that.

So, thanks for reading me here and elsewhere over the last year, and for understanding that blogging isn't about over-sharing, or complaining, or venting, but instead is about working things out one word at a time in order to make some sort of meaning out of the absurdity of this thing we call life.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Algorithms can't compete with cultural obsessives

I just read Shaun Brady's article over at the AV Club celebrating the eclectic sensibilities of the 1990s show Night Flight, which mashed together a series of music, movie, and assorted other pop culture clips during its Friday and Saturday eight-hour late-night programming blocks. It was sort of like MTV but far more hip and scattershot; as Brady says, "The show might bliss out on a feedback-squalling performance from Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps for 20 minutes, smash cut to a re-voiced black-and-white film clip for 2, then settle down for a politically focused discussion with Wendy O. Williams for 10."

It's a fascinating piece, exploring what made Night Flight so entertaining and how, while we've since gained the awesomeness of the internet with everything we could ever possibly want just a few clicks away, we've lost some of the curated weirdness that shows like Night Flight allowed for back in the '80s and '90s. Night Flight and similar shows revealed an alternative world of pop culture to kids everywhere who'd previously only known what they saw in the mainstream culture. If Night Flight sounds to you a lot like falling down the Facebook, Tumblr, or YouTube rabbit holes, you wouldn't be wrong. But the major difference is that while we have a perceived autonomy over our pop culture consumption now to a degree that we never did before, back then you could settle in for an entire evening of unexpected pop culture programming in a way you can't quite do online today. Tumblr might be the closest analogy now, especially if you view a particular page's curated clips and images. The spirit of that past era is still alive online, for sure. But Night Flight was programmed by cultural obsessives who meticulously curated their twice-weekly programming blocks with care and the sort of expertise that can only come from being a cultural obsessive (trust me, I know). Brady's description of what we've lost in the internet age of Spotify and Pandora algorithms is apt:
But algorithms aren’t weird. Cultural obsessives are; they can be elitist or condescending, sure, but they can also make bizarre leaps that aren’t immediately obvious but lead to remarkable, brain-warping discoveries. Where gatekeepers might block you out, there were always tastemakers to sneak you in the side door and show you around: The older sibling who returns from college with a stack of weird new records and movie recommendations; the sarcastic record store clerk who recognizes the seeds of decent taste in your weekly purchases; the cool neighborhood kid whose every arcane utterance sends you scrambling to Google in an attempt to decipher their references.
That's it in a nutshell: if you're obsessive about your pop culture, there's nothing you want or respect more than another like-minded cultural obsessive putting together a playlist or a list of movie or book recommendations because you know that these suggestions will be done thoughtfully and with great care. It's precisely those bizarre leaps that usually lead to the best discoveries.

The article reminded me of something I've been known to bemoan recently, which is that the era of the tastemaker sneaking you in the side door, as Brady puts it, has started to fade. I don't think it'll ever completely go away, instead it's just morphed into different manifestations, but so far it's clear to me that something has been lost. As Brady says:
The challenge to having the same kind of impact today is that Night Flight was a dictatorship, however benevolent, and the whole point of user-oriented sites and services like these are their democratizing effect. Night Flight arrived at a crucial time, as cable TV was still in its infancy but rapidly expanding. USA had been going off the air overnight, so why not hand over the airwaves to a group of midnight-movie experts who knew what audiences responded to in the wee hours? Its time slot became a key aspect of its appeal in a way that’s impossible in today’s “everything, all the time” environment. It was something you stumbled on as you were fading to sleep, or as you came home from a night of imbibing—altered states that made viewers especially susceptible to its heady charms.
There was something special about after hours television in the late twentieth century, right before the dawn of the internet era. Between Night Flight and Up All Night (both from USA Network), to name just two shows, both neophyte and seasoned cultural obsessives alike could devour hours of viewing discoveries every Friday and Saturday night. It was like the old days of pirate radio, in a way, bringing viewers the strange, subversive, and underground elements that couldn't be found in more staid daytime and early evening programming. I was too young to watch Night Flight in its heyday, as its run ended just as I was reaching that perfect age for a show like it, but it was quickly replaced by USA Up All Night, which, along with Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision on TNT, became my source for everything from the world of wonderfully bizarre horror and b movies. Along with friends' older brothers, who had already been turning me on to comic books and movies I really wasn't old enough to be watching yet, I furthered my education from the school of cultural obsessives. It was a terrific time to grow up in and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Hopefully as we continue to evolve online we can manage to hang on to or bring back some of that eclectically curated charm that made Night Flight and other shows like it so vital and formative to a generation of cultural obsessives.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Zoe Lund

I've recently been thinking about the films of Abel Ferrera again, for the first time in quite a while. Ferrera's films, especially Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral, and Ms. 45, were important to me when I was in college and throughout my twenties. Part of the attraction was clearly because his films were left of center, about characters living on the edge (of both society and a nervous breakdown), and above all else they had a realism that I craved in my movies back then. I still do, but as with most things as I age, that burning desire to see films about tortured people living tortured existences fades some. It's also partly because I immersed myself in that kind of cinema for a good long stretch back then, and I may have had my fill for a lifetime. That said, I still remember what made those films so transformative, and I can access that same feeling when I view them again all these years later. I'm hoping to write more at length about Ferrera and his films later, but after running across an old article online recently, I'm reminded of one of his more prominent collaborators, Zoe Lund. The actress and writer only worked on two of Ferrara's films, Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant, but her role in each left a lasting impact.

Lund was a unique talent who might have been a star beyond the downtown crowd had her career taken a different path. She was striking: large, pouty lips and big, wide-set and doe-shaped eyes that always seemed to evoke equal parts insouciance and sadness. In 1981 at the age of 17 she starred in Ms. 45, Ferrara’s low-budget rape and revenge film, where she gave an intensely affecting performance that made your heart slowly break for her. I can only imagine the trauma the filming must have caused to the young Lund. Sure, it’s a performance and it’s all fake, but she was put through simulated trauma, take after take. At first glance, especially from stills or movie posters showing Lund in a nun's costume firing a gun, the film appears to be a forgettable genre flick. Instead, and to Ferrara's credit, it's a serious look at just how much denigration, objectification, harassment, abuse, and dismissive attitudes women must deal with from men on a regular basis. Lund holds the film together, appearing in nearly every scene. As a mute young woman seeking revenge against men for the assaults she suffers at the start of the film, her performance is electric. Not speaking, she instead acts with her eyes and her body. It's a terrific performance.

Not wanting to be a member of “Abel’s stable,” Lund tried to cut her own path in the industry throughout the 1980s but never equaled the attention she garnered for Ms. 45. Eventually she returned to collaborating with Ferrara, this time co-writing the screenplay for (and starring in a small but pivotal role in) his most critically acclaimed film, 1992′s Bad Lieutenant. It’s also one of the most harrowing films of the era, or any era, for that matter. Harvey Keitel’s bad cop hates himself, hates his life, is consumed by guilt, and is spiraling down the drain rapidly. You’re watching a man destroy himself with copious amounts of drugs and self loathing; Lund must have drawn heavily on her own history of drug abuse while scripting the film with Ferrara. She wrote and spoke at length of heroin’s magical and romantic qualities. Years later, she claimed to have written the entire screenplay on her own. We’ll never know for sure, but from what we do know of her, she left her mark all over it. Seven years after Bad Lieutenant, Lund died of heart failure in Paris, her years of heavy drug use finally catching up with her. She was only 37. Now we only have pictures and a scant few movies to remember her by, and to speculate at what might have been had her short, difficult life been more forgiving.