Friday, April 29, 2011

Drive-In Super Monster Rama Returns!

Hey Superfans!

I've written about the wonderful Drive-In Super Monster Rama hosted by the Riverside Drive-In each fall, and am thrilled to report they have posted this September's lineup. In my personal opinion it is their best yet! It includes Mario Bava's Black Sabbath, The Last Man On Earth (the original I Am Legend adaptation), both Dr. Phibes films, the original Count Yorga, and more! All of these are 35mm prints and you'll also get to see a ton of vintage trailers and promos. Team Fantasmo ventured up there a couple of years back and it was a blast . . . I think we'll definitely be returning this year for a pre-Monster Fest warm-up : )

Also don't forget Monday kicks off the weeklong Lance Henriksen Blog-A-Thon celebrating the forthcoming release of the biography Not Bad For A Human. For more details or to participate click the image on the right. I'll have a post up on Monday offering my thoughts on one of my favorite Henriksen films, as well as its importance in the context of his larger oeuvre. Satisfaction guaranteed!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 63: Creepy Anthologies

Hey Superfans!

May kicks off our BIG summer season here at Fantasmo HQ, and we’re starting things off with a couple of horror anthology classics! Anthologies are one of our favorite areas of horror filmdom, as they offer such a variety of tales. Sometimes the stories work, and sometimes they don’t. The beauty is they come at you so quickly that if you don’t like the one that’s onscreen, there’ll be another to come along shortly that is possibly a classic. For this very special Fantasmo we’ll be screening two of the best ones out there, each featuring heavy participation from horror masters Stephen King and George Romero. Our first film is the 80’s classic Creepshow, which was essentially a cinematic translation of the E.C. horror comics from the 50’s. It is also perhaps the best anthology film ever made! Second on the bill is a big screen version of a small screen 80’s staple, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie. In some ways the television show was inspired by the likes of Creepshow, and the movie carries on its mischievous spirit. If there’s a better time at the movies this summer, I can’t imagine what it would be! Without any further ado, here are your full Episode 63 details:

When: Friday, May 6th, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

8:00 p.m.: Creepshow (1982)

10:15: Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

So there you have it, a terrifyingly fun start to our Fantasmo summer lineup. You dare not miss these classic anthologies as they unfold on our BIG screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Just In . . .

Fantasmo All-Star Daniel Perry has just started a cult cinema blog called The Celluloid Coffin! I am honored to also let you know that he has chosen for his initial posting to discuss our headliner from last week's show, the 1982 Hal Needham masterpiece Megaforce! Most amazing of all, Daniel has broken down the plot into an intelligible synopsis. Honestly I've seen Megaforce several times over the years, and reading his post was the first time I had any understanding of the specifics of the plot (likely due to the fact that my jaw was on the floor in shock from the horrendous costumes and special effects). Be sure to check it out for some great reading!

Lance Henriksen Blog-A-Thon

Hey Superfans!

Longtime friend of Fantasmo Joe Maddrey, who recently visited Monster Fest with his excellent documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, has checked in regarding a cool event. In celebration of the upcoming publication of Lance Henriksen's biography Not Bad For A Human, there will be a weeklong Blog-A-Thon to discuss all things Henriksen. Being a huge fan you can expect a post here at Fantasmo, and there will be many others across the web. For more info visit the link above, or check out the host site over at John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film & Television. I for one am looking forward to lots of great writeups about Lance and his prolific career, as well as what promises to be a very interesting book!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Movie Review: Up the Academy (1980)

As a kid I can think of few sources that were as important in fostering my love of reading as MAD Magazine. I remember trading the magazines on the playground from first grade onward, and spent many an hour absorbed in the sophomoric humor contained within its pages. In particular I was fascinated by the movie parodies, as I had developed that love with an unparalleled rapidity. MAD skewered all my favorites including Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, Superman, etc., and I couldn’t get enough of it. It even eclipsed my love of comic books at the time, which was no small feat. So just imagine my excitement, given that movies and MAD were pretty much my two favorite things in the world as a pre-teen, when I learned that a MAD movie was being release in the summer of 1980. It’s a wonder I didn’t pass out from shock when I saw the first television ad featuring a live action Alfred E. Neuman. Unfortunately the movie was rated R, and although my parents could be coaxed into the likes of Alien or Saturn 3 style monster movies, they were not about to take me to what looked to be a riff on Animal House. My disappointment was profound.

I ultimately ended up watching MAD Magazine Presents: Up the Academy a few years later on cable, but was surprised to see no references to MAD or Alfred E. Neuman (more on that later). Furthermore, not only was it a cheap knock off of Animal House, it was kind of dreadful. I had outgrown MAD by that point so it wasn’t a devastating experience by any measure, but more of an odd footnote to the saga. This past week in anticipation of our Schlock-O-Thon, I revisited the film which now has the MAD connection fully restored. The story behind the two versions of Up the Academy is more interesting than the film itself, and the inclusion of the cut footage elevates an awful movie to a bona fide curiosity.

Briefly summing up the plot, four rebellious teens are sent to a military academy to straighten their ways. They immediately run afoul of the school’s commander and a battle of wills ensues, culminating in a soccer game where all stand to lose a great deal. In between fill in any number of lame sight gags that aren’t funny in the least and you more or less have the picture. What distinguishes Up the Academy for special disdain is that in addition to being not funny it is also offensive. I have a high tolerance threshold when it comes to envelope pushing material, but this movie targets ethnicity and gender in a way that is truly mean-spirited. There is no stereotype Up the Academy fails to embrace, resulting in a constant barrage of groan-inducing moments. Watching it I felt bad for the performers, and have to wonder how they ended up signing on to the project. Ron Liebman, who actually turns in a hysterical performance as the evil commander, felt so strongly he had his name removed from the credits.

This brings us to the major controversy regarding the film, the participation and subsequent withdrawal of MAD magazine. Apparently after National Lampoon had enormous success with Animal House, MAD wanted to lend its support to a similar effort. In this case not only did they “present” the film, but they also provided their signature character Alfred E. Neuman to the proceedings. Following the opening credits of the film a live-action version of Neuman opens the film shrugging his shoulders in the “what me worry” mode. He shows up again toward the end after the wild soccer game finale. In addition he was featured in the poster art and the trailers, leaving no question that the spirit of MAD infused the film. After seeing the final product, and being none too pleased, MAD paid $30,000 to Warner Bros. to have their name and all references (i.e. Neuman) removed (at least from the television version). MAD Publisher William Gaines even sent personal apologies to all the readers who sent in complaints. Wow.

Again it’s difficult to understand how these folks could have missed the warning signs, unless the script was somehow lacking in detail. Either that or everyone just jumped on board because it had the smell of success due to its similarities with Animal House. The fact is that Robert Downey Sr. (yes Iron Man’s Dad) executed the direction of the film competently. I don’t see any way he could have elevated the material, and the photography and performances are all on target. The opening credits sequence in particular, which features a decent sounding punk rock song played over images of toy soldiers being knocked over, is pretty cool. It gears one up to expect a much better movie. Speaking of the music, the film has an outstanding soundtrack featuring the likes of Blondie, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop, The Kinks, Pat Benatar, Nick Lowe, Sammy Hagar, Ian Hunter, and more. Clearly an effort was made to produce an outstanding musical roster, and the closing credits even play over images of a recording studio.

The excellent music brings up one of the most perplexing aspects of Up the Academy, in that it features a number of positive ingredients that it had going into battle. In addition to the music it had the participation of a well-loved magazine and iconic character, respected indie director, and a talented cast (including Liebman, Ralph Macchio, Stacey Nelkin, Tom Poston, Barbara Bach, and Antonio Fargas). Perhaps most intriguing of all, soon-to-be Oscar winner Rick Baker designed the Alfred E. Neuman make-up. That’s right he went from Up the Academy to An American Werewolf in London. I should mention as well that the Alfred E. Neuman mask is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. The effect has a strange quality that hovers between real and fake-looking. Instead of being funny and comical like the persona depicted in MAD, the result is downright unsettling. Don’t get me wrong it’s an amazing piece of work as you would expect from Baker, but there’s no question it does not have the effect they surely must have desired.

I have seen many, many bad movies in my time, but Up the Academy occupies a special circle of the Inferno. It’s not “so bad it’s good” like a Gymkata or a Megaforce, and it has on display some material that is absolutely tasteless. With that in mind, on an entertainment level I can’t recommend it. There’s no denying however that as a cultural artifact it is fascinating. If you can stomach the 90-minute ride it’s worth seeing for the disturbing Alfred E. Neuman character, and the fun performance by Ron Liebman. But it’s a long haul with few rewards. That so many talented people could have been attached to a project so without merit is astounding. The bottom line is that the film has no heart at its center because it has a screenplay that fails to understand the Animal House template it seeks to copy. While Animal House is no masterpiece (and I think more than a little overrated), there’s no denying it has a lighthearted, good-natured tone. It’s gross and crude, but it never devolves into the ugly level to which Up the Academy descends. One thing’s for sure, the “what me worry” tagline for which MAD became known certainly had a prophetic quality in relation to their first and only cinematic endeavor.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Team Fantasmo @ Ravencon

Hey Superfans! If you just can't get enough Fantasmo this month we have one more event taking place this weekend! We're heading up to the big Ravencon convention in Richmond once more to conduct a thrilling discussion panel on cult movies. Last year our topic was what makes a cult movie a cult movie. This time around we're taking a kitchen sink style approach and doing a discussion from A to Z, or in this case Atkins to Zardoz : ) So for each letter of the alphabet we'll be throwing out all kinds of obscurities to discuss and analyze. We guarantee that you'll learn about movies and artists you've never before encountered. We also guarantee that M will not be for Megaforce, so it is entirely safe to attend the panel! We go on stage at 3:00 on Saturday, but the convention runs all weekend. If you have an interest in sci-fi, fantasy, movies, and literature, this is a convention you don't want to miss . . . but particularly at 3:00 Saturday. See you there!

Movie Review: The Gong Show Movie (1980)

Hey Sueprfans,

Some of you who have been with the blog for the duration may remember I reviewed this gem of a movie a few years back. I'm doing an encore of the review as part of a program called Scanversations we have coming up at the Library for National Library Week starting this coming Monday. In a nutshell, everyone you see on staff will be wearing a badge with a QR code (readable by smartphone and portable device apps), which will go to a review written by that particular staff member of a book, music, or movie. Naturally I'm doing a movie : ) Since it will be an introduction of sorts to the Fantasmo blog for many, I thought I would choose a greatest hit review. And I'm a big fan of the movie so I couldn't resist! Speaking of Scanversations, if you come by the Library next week definitely participate. One of the staff members will be wearing a special badge that allows you to enter a drawing to win a Barnes & Noble Nook! So without any further ado, to all readers familiar and new, please enjoy the following observations about the masterwork of one Chuck Barris . . .

Chuck Barris has always been a fascinating character to me. As a kid growing up I loved The Gong Show. It was (and still is) some of the wildest television yet to grace the small screen. Of course Barris was also responsible for The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but The Gong Show will always be his most well-known effort. But there's a lot more to this guy than The Gong Show would suggest. In particular he's written some very interesting novels (which masquerade as autobiographies) in the form of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Bad Grass Never Dies, and The Big Question. He has also written a "real" biography called The Game Show King which is fascinating, and serves as an excellent companion piece to The Gong Show Movie. The movie itself is a bit of cinematic genius, although it was universally dismissed by critics and audiences 31 years ago. No doubt this had a great deal to due with the fact that it arrived after the peak of the television show's popularity, as well as the unusual nature of the film. Instead of a feature length/R-rated version of the show, the film was an exploration of Barris's life and near nervous breakdown. Sure Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic make appearances, but this is nevertheless a dark ride.

The plot of The Gong Show Movie is almost non-existent. Essentially it depicts a week in the life of Chuck Barris. The film starts out with Barris watching some truly outlandish auditions (in part where the film earns its R-rating), and then proceeds to follow him doing everything from waking up in the morning to having dinner with his girlfriend. Most significantly we get to see how Barris is bombarded by people trying to get on the show, to the point that it becomes maddening. It's hard to appreciate now just how popular the show was, but Barris was a rock star in his day. Unlike being a member of The Beatles however, who had people hurling praise and adoration, Barris had loony folks coming at him from all directions performing impromptu auditions. According to the book The Game Show King it wreaked havoc on his personal life, until he eventually left the business and retreated to France.

While the film doesn't follow Barris to his final destination, it does protray a mental breakdown he has in the desert near the conclusion. Eventually he flees Los Angeles, but in a middle-of-nowhere diner he is still accosted. So he drives out into the desert to be alone, and is ultimately confronted by all the zany characters that have become a part of his life - on and off screen. The point is that the line between the two has become indistinguishable, and that he has to find some sort of acceptance of the situation or go insane. It's not played as heavy as it sounds, but there is a dark energy to the film that suggests the material is not as lighthearted as the comedic surface elements make it appear. In fact, the juxtaposition of the familiar trappings of the show with the darker thematic content makes for a sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience. In the end the audience is left wondering whether or not art is imitating the life of Barris.

The Gong Show Movie may not be an existential masterpiece, however there is far more to the film than its source material would indicate. It would have been easy for Barris to make a 90-minute, R-rated version of the show to satisfy fans and generate box office returns. Instead he chose to make an experimental film that defies categorization. This is further supported by the fact that original director Robert Downey Sr. gracefully bowed out so that Barris could steer the project. While Barris shrugged off suggestions of a deeper meaning to the film at the time, the end product doesn't support his protestations. Particularly when taken in context with his literary works, The Gong Show Movie plays as a trial run before his bigger success with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And while the book is arguably more successful artistically, I'm still partial to the film. Writing a great book is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment, but the financial/career risks associated with a film are far more significant. Certainly that proved true with The Gong Show Movie, which was more or less the small/big screen swan song for Barris.

The Gong Show Movie may never be hailed as a lost classic, but it will always be a personal favorite of mine. It's an often bizarre, wonderful film that manages to capture the essence of the period, while also uniquely exploring the personality of a television icon in a most unusual way. It's a testament to the genius and artistic courage of Barris that he chose to take the road less traveled, elevating an outrageous game show to a cinematic treatise on the nature of celebrity. Now if only Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek would follow suit!