From a Whisper to a Scream (1987)

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) movie poster

director Jeff Burr
viewed: 07/23/2018

It’s easy to see why some people consider A Whisper to a Scream (a.k.a. The Offspring) to be one of the best horror anthologies of the 1980s.

Vincent Price stars in the wrap-around story but the whole movie is rife with excellent actors in small roles and contributions: especially notable are Clu Gulager and Terry Kiser, but you’ve got Cameron Mitchell, Susan Tyrell, and Rosalind Cash too.

The stories have the eerie irony of classic The Twilight Zone, but heightened with a darkness and nastiness that eventually made Price bemoan his participation. The creep factor blends wonderfully with the sleaze and gore, giving the movie a quality and interest much above other films of the period.

I watched a crappy old VHS version of this on YouTube. It deserves much better. It deserves to be seen.

Fat City (1972)

Fat City (1972) movie poster

director John Huston
viewed: 12/10/2017

Fat City is a man’s man’s man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl. And that woman is Susan Tyrell.

Susan Tyrell, is there any movie she doesn’t completely dominate? Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges are the pugilists, the centers of the story here. And there is a great performance by Nicholas Colasanto (who would go on to be best known as Coach on TV’s Cheers). But Susan Tyrell.

“Thing you got to understand about her, she’s a juicehead.”

She doesn’t just dominate the scenes she’s in, she dominates the film. And it’s a hell of a good film to dominate. In fact, Fat City is a great fucking movie about the futility of human existence, the blood, sweat, and tears that add up to fuck all, and even going down mano y mano, you’re going down.

“The job I’d really like ain’t been invented.”

How many great fucking movies did John Huston make? In many decades and eras of American cinema. Here, he’s working with Leonard Gardner, adapting his own novel about Stockton, CA in the late 1950’s, a brutal, humanist haunt of clapboard reality, cheap bars, cheap work, human struggle. And it’s amazing.

“The pride of Stockton,” this is how Keach gets announced at a bout on the low echelons of the boxing scene. There is something here, too, shooting in then contemporary early 1970’s Stockton, storefronts and skid rows soon after demolished.

But Susan Tyrell, all day long, every day. She takes a character in the novel who is not so much a character but a thin figure of a drunk and makes indelible work of it. Amazing stuff.

Post Script: The LA Weekly may have suddenly gone to shit with its new ownership, but this 2000 article about Susan Tyrell is amazing: My So-Called Rotten Life by Paul Callum.

Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977)

Andy Warhol's Bad (1977) movie poster

director Jed Johnson
viewed: 01/17/2017

I don’t know how I never got around to seeing Andy Warhol’s Bad, directed by Jed Johnson, before. I’m actually a little fuzzy on the Andy Warhol-produced cult features that I HAVE seen. Even those would have been in the Eighties.

Bad is “like” John Waters, but also not quite like John Waters as well. Waters’s films are far more camp, more hilarious, less slick, less polished. But they share a sense of dark satire, not only of American culture, but of American genre films too. So cultural critique but also cinematic play. And a mordant sense of black humor.

Carroll Baker stars as the stay-at-home matriarch, clad in what would be even for the time a sort of retro-chic middle-Americana, who runs a DIY electrolysis clinic from her kitchen and a handy hit-person service by phone. Susan Tyrrell steals the show as her frumpy daughter-in-law who is constantly feeding her freakish baby whom she seems to be in utter horror of. Perry King enters the scene as a young hunk wanting to break into the assassin business, of whom Baker is not to certain, as she primarily employs women killers.

There is a lot more to it, but it’s sharp and funny, bizarre and cool. And campy, just a very different vibe than John Waters. Different but easily shelved next to him.

Pretty great, in my estimation.

Tapeheads (1988)

Tapeheads (1988) movie poster

director Bill Fishman
viewed: 04/09/2015

A movie that could only have come from the 1980’s, Tapeheads is an indie comedy starring Tim Robbins and John Cusack as two would-be music video producers trying to make it on the cheap in LA.

It features Sam Moore and Junior Walker as well as the band Fishbone, who are credited with the music for the film.  Actually a litany of odd notable musicians appear, including Stiv Bators, Weird Al Yankovic, Jello Biafra.  We’ve even got an appearance by Martha Quinn of early MTV days.

Cusack actually has a number of good scenes in this choppy, fun, not exactly terrific cult film.  It’s hard not to like and even harder to fathom how I never actually saw this film before.

Cry-Baby (1990)

Cry-Baby (1990) movie poster

director John Waters
viewed: 02/19/2014

Sometime back I decided to work my way through all of John Waters’ movies.  It’s kind if strange but I never saw Cry-Baby before ever.  I wound up watching it On Demand from the Sundance Channel and oddly noted that it’s running time was less than it ought to have been.  And then there are these weird ellipses in the film apparently where it was cut to commercial by the channel.  And I began to really wonder if I was missing out here.

It’s quite clean if it is the whole film.  I don’t know how many of Waters’ films hit PG-13 but this was his period of gaining the broadest of audiences, following up on his 1988 success with Hairspray.  I’m sure he never envisioned a world at the time when both Hairspray and Cry-Baby were translated into Broadway musicals.

Actually, Cry-Baby is a lot of fun, sort of a musical if not entirely a musical on its own.  This was Johnny Depp’s break-away movie and he’s great in it, though his singing is replaced by the rockabilly stylings or James Intveld.  No matter.  It’s quite fun.

It’s got a typical litany of Waters’ hand-chosen stars and celebrities playing all sorts of oddball characters, enacting a love from the wrong side of the tracks story that is almost downright clean-cut.  (I was missing something, right?)  Traci Lords is kind of perfect in it.

Like I said, I enjoyed it.

Forbidden Zone (1982)

Forbidden Zone (1982) movie poster

director Richard Elfman
viewed: 09/05/2012

I don’t know how I never managed to see nor really ever heard of Forbidden Zone until a few years ago, as it is a 1980’s cult film extraordinaire.  It was directed by Danny Elfman’s older brother, Richard Elfman, who was the founder of the The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the theater/performance group that would eventually evolve into the 1980’s alternative band.  It features Danny Elfman and others from the group and is a madcap guffaw of cartoon id.

Channeling Fleisher brothers’ Betty Boop cartoons, swing jazz of the 1930’s, doses of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus animation, and straight up hallucinatory insanity, this black and white musical comedy is strange and kitsch and all over the place.  The Forbidden Zone is entered through a door in a crazy house, the sixth dimension, inhabited by a king (Hervé Villechaize) and his queen (Susan Tyrell), an even more twisted, darker Wonderland.  Parts of the film are animated, actually some of the finest parts, but the whole thing is staged on sets right out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) cum 1930’s Looney Tunes.  Camp and shtick and kitsch galore.

As much as all that description touches on a myriad of styles and forms that I love, I was surprised that I didn’t like the film more.

Aspects of it a brilliant.  It’s kind of brilliant merely in the fact of its creation and being.  I certainly can think of nothing remotely like it.  It would have been quite the strange delight in the 1980’s.


Flesh+Blood (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Paul Verhoeven
viewed: 03/30/09

Director Paul Verhoeven has interested me for a number of years, a strange, perverse filmmaker, whose films are filled with sex, violence, irony and social criticism.  Though I’d been aware of him for a number of years, it was when he made Starship Troopers (1997), that I came to see him in a new light.  Flesh+Blood was Verhoeven’s first American film, but he went on to great success with science fiction action films including RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) and also Basic Instinct (1992), which had him at the top of Hollywood’s director list, given the commercial success of his work.  But it was the film that he followed up his success with Basic Instinct‘s screenwriter that would come to flatline his Hollywood name, 1995’s notorious and now uber-cult film Showgirls.

Verhoeven’s work, especially if you look at the films listed here, is full of sex and violence.  I think what happened when Showgirls came out that it was so lambasted and criticized, not just for its ridiculous camp and bad acting, but for the misogyny that it showed, especially when paired with Basic Instinct.  Verhoeven’s star dimmed considerably.  And when I saw Starship Troopers, a return to the science fiction genre that had helped make his name, I read the film as a critique of Hollywood, featuring bland, pretty faces getting blown to bits, futher media critiques, and pessimism.  The film was a critical flop at the time and yet, I think it has developed into one of many people’s perverse favorites.

Though Verhoeven went on to make Hollow Man (2000), he left Hollywood and returned to the Netherlands, from where he orginated.

I think he’s one of the more interesting figures in the 1980’s and 1990’s in American cinema, not one of the guys who gets talked about a lot, perhaps this leans heavily upon his Showgirls production.  Who knows?  He is interesting and is well-worth investing the time in re-visiting.

So, anyways, this brings me to how I queued up 1985’s Flesh+Blood.  His first American film, set in the Middle Ages, an adventure film with gritty, dirty characters and an eternally questionable nobility.  I’d never seen it.  I’d only vaguely even remembered it.  The film stars Rutger Hauer (a Germanic Paul Newman look-alike) and the young nubile Jennifer Jason Leigh (who spends a fair amount of screentime entirely nude).  Hauer is a warrior, a hedonistic murderer, rapist, life-loving would-be saint.  Leigh is a sexually precocious virginal bride-to-be of a nobleman.  Hauer accidentally abducts Leigh when eking revenge upon the nobleman who cheated them from their pay, which leads to a very strange and disturbing rape scene.

Everything in the film is muddy and dirty, morals, religion, ideals.  Tom Burlinson’s character Steven, the nobleman to whom Leigh is meant to be engaged is the only character who shows any untrampled idealism and humanity.  It’s kind of confusing to try and make out exactly what Verhoeven is portraying here.  The world is a dark, nasty place where happiness and pain are embedded together, sex and rape are only a half inch apart from one another, and loyalty is entirely based on survivalist need.  It’s a kind of horrific portrayal of humanity, and the film does have some striking sequences.  One of the most telling is when the still virginal Leigh sits with her husband-to-be under two hanging, rotting corpses and digs up a root shaped like a baby, from which they both eat, as an omen of love.

Maybe that image sums up the morbid humanity of the film.  The ending is oddly open, with the heroic, noble Steven winding up with the deflowered and questionably loyal Leigh, with the escaping Hauer stalking toward the camera as it fades to mist.  While there is resolution of sorts, there is no closure of the triangle.  It’s left as muddy and infected as the sores on the bodies of the plague-ridden harlots.

One thing that is somewhat significant is a homosexual relationship between two of the gang of marauders, which is treated with dignity and respect.  The only funny part of that is that one of the two is the late actor Bruno Kirby, whose voice is so nasally New York, it’s utterly absurd to have him speak in this film.

There are other absurdities, too.  But as a whole, the film is interesting, but not necessarily “good”.  Some of the acting is totally laughable, perhaps Verhoeven is slanted toward camp always.  And the treatment of women, while not necessarily misogynist utterly, is certainly questionable.  Except for Leigh, the women are all small-minded and filthy, bearing no dignity nor morality.  And Leigh’s character is intelligent and survivalist, but ultimately self-serving.  Where do her true loyalties lie?

Interesting, if you’re up for this sort of thing.