Thurs. the Looking Glass: a new series covering 1980s science fiction and horror films which may have crept through the myriad mirror mazes of time and eluded deserving viewers. Many are being rediscovered now, thanks in large part to the stunning work of Shout Factory's new Scream! offshoot (see my praise piece on Bright Lights) which has been giving these half-forgotten treasures snazzy hand-painted new covers and the kind of film-specific attention to detail only a fan could bring, conceive, and appreciate. Scream Factory, we hail thee.
Preface: To be a teenager in the 1980s was a terrible nightmare of dwindling freedom and choking sameness. We started out the decade as children running wild, puffing our Winston Lights and Marlboro Reds at the designated junior high school smoking area, engaging in unprotected everything, wiling away the hours at Spaceport or just driving around in our inherited Ford Mavericks looking for empty parking lots to make out in. We ended the decade miserable, busted by over-eager cops for so much as drinking a beer in our own backyard or having a joint stashed in our sock. Watching our freedoms dwindle one by one in the name of safety there was nothing to do but go to the mall... again.
|1982 ad for Montgomeryville PA drive-in, where I saw too much.|
What's most to love is that there was no CGI in the 1980s, no rules, no format to follow, just a plethora of imagination. Compare that to now, where everything is just the same old zombies and moody vampires, and wince. So let's take a drive then... as Malcolm McDowell tells Cat person Nastassja Kinski in one of her kinky dreams, "you must go baa-a-a-ack."
NIGHT OF THE COMET
1984 - ***1/2One of the stealth coolest 80s heroines, Catherine Mary Stewart (top) looks like a tougher teen version of Linda Hamilton, and kicks ass thanks to growing up with a Special Ops father who taught her and her sister self defense before heading off to deep tactical cover in Nicaragua, leaving the sisters with an uncaring step mom. The apocalypse here comes around offscreen, with the arrival of a long-heralded comet. The survivors are the ones who for some reason missed the show, and kept safe behind metal walls - in other words almost no one. But the partially exposed are devolving into zombie mutants and/or Omega Man style crumbling vampire zombie types, such as a homeless black guy creature behind the theater, the stock boys turned new wave machine gun killers, and a cadre of underground bunker scientists pretending to care about survivors when actually they just want.... ah, I shan't spoil it.
The empty LA orange and red skies and streets post-apocalypse are amazingly beautiful, casting a mysterious, lonesome glow over everything, unusual in this sort of picture. A few zombies and evil scientists putter around (this is not a film that can afford zombie crowd shots), but the film's too good-hearted to really ever get scary. It is however continually engaging, with cozy use of an automated radio station and a theater as backdrops, with lots of 80s neon, and Eating Raoul's Mary Woronov as a good scientist and Robert Beltran as a truck driver. Beltran gets top billing credits but it's clearly Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney who carry the weight as the sisters, displaying a believable rapport that includes cool sister banter, rivalry, shared laughter, commiseration, sororal support, petty bickering, and Mac 10 target practice. Stewart (top) is a total 80s nerd dream girl who works at a local theater, dominates the high score list at the lobby Galaga-imitation, eats Twizzlers for breakfast and sleeps with the projectionist more out of boredom and not wanting to go home and deal with the comet party her stepmom is throwing than anything else.
The weirdest part of the film is that nowhere in the credits is there a sign of Paul Bartel or Penelope Spheeris or Joe Dante or Alan Arkush, all of whom worked for Corman and inherited his flair for feminist but sexy dialogue, racial equality, beatnik wit, and knack for conveying their films are part of a larger film world, almost like connectors between other, bigger-budgeted films (i.e. Cameron's Terminator was what connected Blade Runner to Halloween). If no Corman or Bartel connection, why are there two leads from Eating Raoul, and a conspicuous movie poster for Death Race 2000 on the theater door?
Oh well, the film has a genial mellowness is all its own, or writer-director Thom E. Eberhardt's, or maybe the cast's. Before this film Eberhart only did one film, Sole Survivor which prefigures the Final Destination films by 20 years, and afterwards a film called The Night Before, starring Keanu Reeves. This tells us nothing. Maybe we can just chalk it up to something intangible made flesh by the mere presence of Mary Woronov, the Patti Smith of the quasi-mainstream neo-underground horror-sci fi-comedy genre, and chance.
1982 - ****
This is a rarity, a genuinely great performance art science fiction hybrid experimental 16mm oddity from the downtown NYC heroin chic fashion poseur scene, what Bowie probably hoped The Man who Fell to Earth would be like. Russian ex-pat Slava Tsukerman co-wrote with the star, Anna Carlisle, who plays both Margaret (a sleepwalking model with a fondness for bizarro face paint) and a perennially sneering male model in the Ziggy mode named Jimmy. If this was a guy playing both roles it might just be the usual camp drag theatricality, but Carlisle brings a depth of wry sadness that's almost Germanic, belying her being just 26 years-old at the time, though she announces she's from Connecticut ("Pilgrim stock!") in one of the film's key and classic scenes. She crushes it! She takes both roles over the edge, even going down on herself while fashionistas (before there was such a phrase) jeer jadedly.
Man, those effete women and manly men who spend their nights milling around tiny black box apartments and boutiques, engaging in never ending private fashion shows in vain attempts to stand out from a stable of similarly face-painted and ennui-and-withdrawal-driven wild clotheshorses. Meanwhile a German scientist named Johann (Otto Von Wernher) has followed a tiny spacecraft about the size a closed George Foreman grill to the roof above the East Village penthouse flat Margaret shares with her knife wielding Valerie Solanis-style performance artist heroin dealer lesbian girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Shepherd, below).
The plot follows Margaret as she tries to do some coke, but winds up raped by a sleazy goombah who force feeds her goofballs --it's not a traumatic scene like some because she fights back and engages but at the same time barely gives a fuck --she knows she'll get him back eventually and she's patient as a cobra; Jimmy meanwhile is withdrawing from heroin but has no money and Adrian won't front; a fashion designer promises Jimmy some if he shows up to model the next night at a shoot on Margaret's roof. Meanwhile the alien is floating his giant solarized color style eye thing around, observing all like a mix of the aliens in It Came from Outer Space and ourselves as viewers. It maybe hides behind the white mask in the center of Margaret's weird neon hula hooped painting. When her lovers have their selfish orgasm, a cigarette burn in the celluloid behind their head sucks them right out of the film, leaving her free to resume high fashion moping. Good deal! Her own inability to have an orgasm saves her life, and allows her to notice her little alien guardian. Though she never sees it (them?) she falls in love with it and forms a bond as touching as that between the disembodied Virginia Leith and her unseen closet monster in The Brain that Wouldn't Die!
In short, a beautiful time is had by all, especially if you don't mind repetitive synthesizer percussion that resounds on high decibel pitch-shifted soundwaves like an angry filmmaker is just learning his first and only melody on his first and only Korgi synthesizer. Highlights include Adrian's inspired spontaneous poetry rant delivered while beating Margaret's dead naked acting teacher as a bongo drum; the odd but natural way two people hanging out in bed can devolve into attempted rape and/or stabbing without either one particularly feeling the need to get up; and Margaret's inspired final monologue, delivered as she applies intense glow-in-the-dark face paint in pitch darkness, like Kali, Warhol, and a stoned Annette Haven wrapped up into one tall WASP fashionista **** But there's also the coolness that is Susan Doukas as Jimmy's sex-starved mother, who seduces--or tries to--Johann when he uses her apartment (its opposite Margaret's) to spy on the craft and check out all the deaths and sexes. He continually ducks out on her, maybe saving both their lives in the process though frustrating her to no end, which caused me the most discomfort in the film, as I hate to see a lady go hungry and Doukas does a hell of a job at conveying the homey warmth and welcome forwardness (even if its tinged with desperation) one hopes for from sex-starved middle-aged Manhattan foxes with big apartments in the 70s--80s, the type who know their Chinese food deliverer by name and with whom you can probably crash for a few weeks while you pretend to look for an apartment. Dude, I'm grateful to dames like that and they deserve to have their needs gratified if for no other reason that they are bold enough to admit they have them and to pursue their quarry and this film is a gem.
|Mary Woronov, with the Velvet Underground and her co-whip dancer, Gerard Malanga|
Lastly, a shout out to the beautiful and tall and cool Mary Woronov, the living link between the great 70s-80s rock and roll sci fi-New Wave-Punk-Corman-Canon cineworld and the Warhol Velvet Underground joint. Check her above, snuggled up with mighty Lou! Edie Sedgwick may be the one everyone gushes over but its Woronov, more than any of them, who's a true rock and roll survivor. She's still got it! She sheds some insight on why she's seldom left the niche cult market and taken parts in big Hollywood films:
"Let's face it: women's parts are gone women are gone. They've disappeared from the movie screens! You know when I was working with Warhol there was no problem because it was a homosexual atmosphere. But in Hollywood it's a heterosexual atmosphere, and they do not like to see strong women. So instead of actresses we've got hostesses. 'May I show you to your seat, Mr. Schwarzenegger?' So that's why I keep doing...these other movies." (1990 Cornell Cinemas)
Damn girl, it's their fucking loss and the gain of all weird movie lovers...
Postscript: I wasn't sure why I put these two films together for this inaugural Thurs. the Looking Glass entry, but Woronov is the key. Sure she's not in Sky but her girl strength and Warholian style is, and both films are rare in that they star women with boys way, way to the side. In fact the genders are almost reversed - the women are in charge in both films, recalling in their way Star Maidens and Norman Fell's almost-forgotten All that Glitters! Release them! (See my article about them in Acidemic's Nordics issue)