Ha ha!

You just never know what he'll review next!

Sunday 30 October 2022

Burl reviews The Howling! (1981)


Ah-roo and graw-graw, it’s Burl, here to walk on two legs with a movie I’m surprised I haven’t already reviewed! Yes, it’s a werewolf picture – you’ve already guessed that, I’m sure, from my introductory noises – and it stars the finest of actors, Dick Miller, and it’s a key film of my youth! Ha ha, my pals and I just loved it, along with An American Werewolf in London, which is sort of its compadre and rival in the werewolf world! It was one of the gems of 1981, which was designated by Cinefantastique magazine as the Year of the Wolf! Of course, in my usual long-winded way, I’m talking about Joe Dante’s fine picture The Howling!

And as noted it’s a werewolf picture, but it starts out like a crime show, with TV newslady Karen White, played by the ever fragile-seeming Dee Wallace from Secret Admirer, hot on the trail of the notorious Smiley Face Killer, who's known for leaving a smiley face sticker at the scene of each brutal slaughter! But when Karen comes face to face with the maniac in a dark and scary pornoo booth, something so oddball happens that she’s traumatized! The cops shoot the killer dead, but Karen can hardly remember the weird thing she witnessed! Her husband, played by Christopher Stone from The Annihilators, her station manager, in the person of Dennis Dugan from Smile, and her best friend, Belinda Balaski from Cannonball, are all sympathetic, but nobody can stop her nightmares or recover her memory!

Patrick Macnee from Sweet Sixteen plays the sort of pop therapist whose field of study happens to be exactly what the movie’s about, and his advice to Karen is to get out of it for a while and go up to his therapeutic compound on the coast! This woodsy and rustic place proves to be, among other things, a hotbed of great character actors like John Carradine from The Boogey Man, Slim Pickens from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Noble Willingham from City Slickers! Of course I don’t think I’m giving away a confidence by telling you that in addition to providing a satirical look at the sort of self-actualization pocus that the 70s was known for, the therapeutic compound is also a breeding ground for werewolves, and so things get pretty hairy for Karen!

But meanwhile her friends Dugan and Belaski are doing some investigating back in the city, and they find that the Smiley Face Killer, played here by Robert Picardo from Explorers, has turned up missing even though he was dead, and that’s because he’s a werewolf of course! Some silver bullets are provided by none other than Dick Miller, and then the stage is set for a battle of fang and tooth! It does take a little long to get there by modern standards – ha ha, there are long werewolf-free passages in the first two thirds of the picture, and a surprising dearth of ah-roo overall – but the journey is one of absolute enjoyment! The Pino Donaggio score is a big help, and the script is a gangbuster!

And oh frankenstein, what a supporting cast! In addition to the many champs already named we get veterans like Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the role of the grumpy owner of Karen’s TV station, Ken Tobey from It Came From Beneath the Sea as a cop, and best of all the fabulous Miller from A Bucket of Blood, here again playing Walter Paisley, this time in the guise of the mercenary occult bookstore owner who calls werewolves “worse than cock-a-roaches!” Ha ha! We also get cameos from Roger Corman and Forrest Ackerman and screenwriter John Sayles, who also turned up in Dante’s Matinee!

Of course there were many sequels to this picture, beginning with Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, then moving on to the one with the were-marsupials, and only getting worse from there! Ha ha, I’ve seen a few of them, but all I recall is that they were stank! This one is the real deal, though – a terrific follow-up to Dante’s previous picture Piranha! My friends and I watched it plenty back in the old VHS days, and I can tell you it holds up! The standing-up werewolves look cool and the transformation trick effects are tasty! There’s even a touch of stop motion, as you'll find in most Dante pictures! Yes, it’s a solid entertainment, very hairy, and so I give The Howling three and a half frying hamburgers!

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Burl reviews Videodrome! (1983)


Beep boop and chugalug, it’s Burl, here with another review, and do you know what? Ha ha, it’s my one thousandth review! That’s a round 1000! Yes, I’ve gone and reviewed a thousand movies so far, and what I’m trying to decide is, should I keep going? Do enough people read and enjoy these reviews to make it worth it? I like doing the reviews, so there’s that, but sometimes it seems I’m just laughing into the void! I suppose that shouldn’t matter since I enjoy it and all, so I guess I’ll just figure out for myself if I ought to keep going with my little funtime reviews! Your input is welcome, though – feel free to tell me if you think I should just hang it up!

Anyway, today I’m reviewing another great favourite of mine! It’s a picture I’ve seen many times, but only once on the big screen: at the late, great Scala Cinema (celebrated, as you’ll recall, in the documentary Scala) on a double bill with another quality Canadian picture, Un Zoo La Nuit! The movie under discussion today is David Cronenberg’s Videodrome – perhaps his finest film, and by garr, to me that’s saying a lot!

Because after all, I’m hugely fond of Dead Ringers, Crash, Scanners, and almost all his other movies! But Videodrome somehow stands above them all, even if it’s maybe the shortest full-length feature he’s made! Certainly it’s the most outré, and one of the Cronenbergiest, ha ha! Like much of his best work it serves as a strangely accurate peek into the future – it predicted all manner of techno-organic interfusioning and manipulation by media and virtual reality metadonaldination, and also foresaw James Woods going bonkers!

Woods, whose hollow cheeks we’ll recall from Night Moves and Best Seller, is Max Renn, a low-level Toronto TV magnate who’s always looking for racy late-night content for his disreputable cable channel! When his in-house tech wizard Harlan, played by Peter Dvorsky from Millennium, shares some fuzzy S&M video he’s managed to pick up while cruising the contraband airwaves, Max knows this is exactly what he needs for his station and he gets on the trail of the snuff program known as Videodrome!

Debbie Harry, the child-eating witch from Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, is a sultry radio hostess called Nicki Brand, and she first becomes Max’s love interest, then shows up as a guest star on Videodrome! Ha ha! In his quest to figure out what Videodrome is, and as he begins to realize that exposure to the program is doing a weird number on his own mental and physical self, Max bumps shoulders with a number of familiar Canadian thespians, including Sonja Smits from The Pit, Les Carlson from Black Christmas, Jack Creley from Tulips, Lynne Gorman from Nobody Waved Good Bye, and Julie Khaner from Spasms!

Of course Max is trapped and doomed from the moment he first lays eyes on the signal – ha ha, the New Flesh will have its way no matter what he does! Hallucination and reality become one, tumorous weaponry sprouts, new orifices develop, airwaves and brainwaves meld, and, in an ending that feels a little bit made up on the spot because, in fact, it was, Max finds himself aboard a rustbucket lakeboat watching the last TV show he’ll ever see! Ha ha, and while I can’t say it’s a happy ending, for an improvised conclusion it does manage to feel inevitable!

I’ve really liked this picture for a long time, and my admiration has not diminished with the years! It still seems a brainy, diabolical, occasionally gruesome, and very Toronto piece of work! It has some rubbery trick effects courtesy of Rick Baker, who’d made the greasy dog in An American Werewolf in London, and a terrific cold-as-a-mackerel score from Howard Shore! And it seems to be about something, which, let’s face it, most movies aren’t, and what it’s about seems to shift cunningly from viewing to viewing! I think Cronenberg was firing on all cylinders here, and being a motorcycle and general racing enthusiast, he has a lot of cylinders to fire! Ha ha, I give Videodrome four smears of pizza sauce!

Thursday 13 October 2022

Burl reviews Withnail and I! (1986)


Get in the back of the van, it’s Burl, here to review a picture that I’ll tell you right off the top is one of my favourites! Ha ha and sweet john fiddlesticks, it’s a movie I’ve delighted in ever since it was released, one I find not just beautifully written and acted and made, but extremely funny! And I know I’m not alone in these feelings, though sometimes I wish I were! Of course the film to which I refer is Withnail and I!

Along with The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows and Night of the Living Dead, I think it’s one of the great feature directorial debuts! That may seem hyperbolic, and it probably is, but I do find it an impressive accomplishment from someone who apparently claimed throughout the shoot that he didn’t know what he was doing! That someone is Bruce Robinson, who followed this up with the okay if not nearly as satisfying How To Get Ahead in Advertising; but he knocked it out of the park on this first go round, that’s for sure!

Our setting is London’s Camden Town in late September and early October of 1969! Two unemployed actors, the titular gentlemen, live in a squalorous flat and drink as much and as frequently as they are able, pausing only to pop pills or drag on enormous joints! Richard E. Grant from L.A. Story is Withnail, while Paul McGann from Alien 3 is I; and their sometime pal and drug dealer, Danny, is played by Ralph Brown, who was in Stoker and was also in Alien 3, ha ha! And there’s even an appearance from Chocolate Mousse himself, Eddie Tagoe of Top Secret fame, here playing Presuming Ed!

Wishing to get out of London for a time, the flatmates cadge a cottage key from Withnail’s florid uncle Monty, played wonderfully by Richard Griffiths from Gorky Park! Accompanied by the guitar stylings of Jimi Hendrix, the lads drive up to the desolate farming mountain of Crow Crag, where the cottage proves nearly as shabby as their London digs, the rain and cold are unceasing, and the promontory decidedly sterile! Ha ha! Not only that, but a rough poacher threatens to put a black pod on Withnail, which terrifies him into a babbling frenzy! Then Monty shows up with a gleam in his eye and the holiday becomes a truly threatening experience for the young, Lennon-bespectacled I!

More of the plot I won’t divulge, mainly because there is no plot really; and that the movie gets away with this so handily is merely another of its charms! It’s a portrait movie: a portrait of these two friends, of this particular moment in time, of London, of poverty, of substance abuse and dependence, of romantic desperation, of career despondency, of the end of an era and the dwindling of hope! “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth,” soliloquizes Withnail at the end, and we realize it’s exactly that loss of mirth we’ve been witnessing throughout the movie! Ha ha, it’s not the funniest conclusion a comedy ever had, but it’ll stick with you!

Now, while it’s true I’m not a full member of the cult of Withnail and I, which is made up mostly of young (though perhaps now aging), pasty, educated, middle class white men whose principal affectation is the misplaced notion that they have no affectations, but who then go around wearing long coats and tartan scarves right out of the film anyway and quoting lines from it until you want to punch them, I will here admit that not only have I owned coats much like those each of the two titular characters wear, but that I have also, with this movie fully in mind, sat on a bench in the Regent’s Park and swigged directly from a bottle of red wine!

Ha ha, I’ll go further! Though it was not in conscious imitation of the film, I have also roared drunkenly around London from pub to pub in a clapped-out Jaguar! (I was not driving, but the fellow who was had consumed just as much booze as I had, risking not just traffic calamity but police arrest, not having one of Danny’s fresh-pee contraptions on hand!) I have in my time also complained of “a bastard behind the eyes” and bellowed “There must and shall be aspirin!” But I have never obnoxiously demanded the finest wines available to humanity, nor fretted that my thumbs had gone weird, nor wept in butcher’s shops, nor declaimed Hamlet’s soliloquy to wolves! No, I just find the movie well performed and funny and, so far, endlessly rewatchable, and for a’ that, I give Withnail and I four shag-sacks!

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Burl reviews Trucks! (1997)


Ha ha and double ha, it’s Burl crying vroom and giving you a review of a vehicular picture from the 90s! In fact it’s a remake of that sweet perennial from 1986, Stephen King’s one and only directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive! I suppose though that the producers of this picture might insist it’s not a remake, but rather a make of the original King short story! And to bolster their claim, the movie carries the same title as that story: Trucks!

Once again we have a little gang of people trapped by living trucks at a roadside choke-and-puke! The action allegedly takes place somewhere near Area 51, and there’s some theorizing about alien control, but otherwise we don’t get an explanation for the behaviour of these vehicles! Unlike the 1986 movie, it’s just trucks who’ve become sentient, not drawbridges, gas pumps, carving knives, video games, or bank machines, ha ha! So this effort is a little more straightforward than King's!

It’s an ensemble movie, but our putative lead is the ginger-haired owner of the little ramshackle rest-a-ree-a, Ray, played by Timothy Busfield, who’s well known from movies like Stripes and Sneakers! He’s got a teenage son called Logan, essayed by Brendan Fletcher from Violent Night and Ginger Snaps 2, and the sleepy, sloe-eyed townslady is Hope – yes, it’s Brenda Bakke from Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight! There’s Jack, a portly old hippie played by Jay Brazeau from Live Bait; bickering father-daughter duo Thad (Roman Podhora from Jason X) and Abby (Amy Stewart from My Winnipeg); an old counterman played as a Canadian cross between Donald Moffat and M. Emmet Walsh by Victor Cowie from Careful; and an amorous couple essayed by Sharon Bajer from Eye of the Beast and a fellow whose name I did not catch!

From many of these actors and their other credits, you might suss that this movie was made in Canada! It seems that in fact most of it was, but at some point they decided the trucks and the truck stop and all those characters I mentioned were not enough, so they shot some additional, slightly bloodier scenes in California, and these can be identified by the fact that they contain characters which have exactly nothing to do with the plot, and by the beautiful blacktop highways, which stand in marked contrast to the rough grey concrete, spiderwebbed with tarry cracks, that are found in the Canadian scenes! Ha ha! And while I’m getting into the production weeds, I should also make special mention of the work of Ina Hanford, who does a terrific job here!

The California scenes are the movie's goofier ones, and are much less truck-centric; so points for eclecticism but debits for straying, even if slightly, from the theme! These scenes have a hydro man shaken by his boomtruck and electrocuted; a hazmat suit somehow filling with air and becoming an axe murderer; and goofiest of all, an enraged radio-controlled toy 4x4 bursting through a door and slamming a luckless postman to death! Ha ha! Meanwhile, in Manitoba, the motley group huddles in their restaurant watching a parade of about half a dozen belligerent trucks circle the place, occasionally taking out someone dumb, brave, or dumb-brave enough to venture out! All of this is shot without style or pep, is absent of wit or verve, and is certainly unburdened by affrights! The stars don’t seem to be trying too hard – Busfield comes off as a seriously slumming Paul Giamatti being forced to play the role at the point of a gun held just off camera, and Bakke appears to be heavily barbiturated throughout!

So if you thought Maximum Overdrive was pretty bad (if quite a bit of fun!) and that as a director Stephen King makes a pretty good book writer, you’ll be shocked at how much more poorly this story can be told! Trucks demonstrates this amply, having, as it does, the feel of a movie made in a gravel quarry by people with no appreciation of the genre they’re working in or, frankly, any love of cinema! I don’t wish to tar every crew member with this terrible brush, but I will spread disdain like a jam across the whole of the above-the-line personnel! Sure, there are some good movies about angry self-driving vehicles - The Car is terrific, and Christine is a near-gem too – but this is not one of them! Trucks is a cracknel biscuit and no mistake, and I award it one culvert!

Sunday 9 October 2022

Burl reviews Dream Demon! (1988)


In the shadow of Freddy it’s Burl, here to tell all about a British knock-off of A Nightmare on Elm Street! Maybe that’s not completely fair – though it’s a rubber-reality dream picture for sure, and approaches its dream sequences much in the style of any 80s horror picture, it has its own non-Kregeresque business going on, though the exact nature of that business is a bit opaque! Yes, I’m talking about Dream Demon!


It comes from the director of Malone, and I won’t try spelling the fellow’s name, because I notice he himself spells it differently from picture to picture! The story is set in London, and our heroine is Diana, a young bride-to-be played by Jemma Redgrave! Her fiancé is a comically upright and squarejawed Falklands war hero, or I should properly say “hero” because everything about this guy is in doubt, called Oliver, played by Mark Greenstreet! I’ll give away now that he turns out to be a total jerk, but that doesn’t spoil much because he has that aura right from the beginning!


Diana is being plagued by pre-nuptial anxiety dreams in which Oliver abuses her at the altar, and she in turn decapitates him, which is frankly no more than he deserves! In her dreams the world is lit like a rock video, and she is plagued not just by Oliver, but by bugs! Meanwhile a pair of tabloid reporters set their sights on her for some reason, crowding her at her doorstep and asking impertinent questions! This duo is a reporter played by Jimmy Nail from Howling II and a crude, moon-faced paparazzo essayed by Timothy Spall, whom we recall from Dutch Girls and Gothic! The apparently near-friendless Diana then gets a new acquaintance in the form of Kathleen Wilhoite, more or less playing the same sort of psychic punkette she played in Witchboard! Wilhoite’s Jenny shows up at Diana’s door because that’s the house she lived in as a child, and where she experienced some trauma she can’t quite remember before being spirited off to America!


Whether Jenny has some psychic triggering ability or Diana is a powerful dream empath, or it’s something to do with the house is never made clear, but the upshot is that soon Diana and those in her orbit (except Oliver, who I suppose is meant to be so thick and imagination-free that he doesn’t even dream) are spending half their time in the oneiric netherworld of Diana’s subconscious! The tabloid jerks, especially the photographer, become the Freddy stand-ins that pop around corners and scare her; Jenny, meanwhile, has had enough and very sensibly decides to flee the scene, but it’s not so easy! By this time Diana doesn’t know whether she’s dreaming or not, and Jenny falls into a long reminiscence, or perhaps dream, of her nasty sculptor father, played by Nickolas Grace from Salomé’s Last Dance, chasing her around and forcing her to pose for a gravestone sculpture he’s making!


I said earlier that this was a Nightmare on Elm Street pretender, and indeed it is in many ways, but I should qualify that by saying that its dreams are much more subtly insinuated into the narrative than in the Freddy pictures! Sometimes the lighting changes, or the set becomes weird and you know it’s a dream, but other times we just ease into them and can’t be sure until something oddball happens! The debit side to this approach is that there’s rarely a whole lot of imagination pumped into the dreamscapes, and the reluctance to get funky deprives the picture of the pep it might otherwise have displayed! Clearly this was a choice made early in the production, and in the end it comes off a more mature work than the Freddy pictures, but it’s not one of those beloved gloop specials the 1980s were so good at turning out!


Still, it has some gross-out moments and trick effects, most of them centering around Spall’s vile photographer character! But the filmmakers never really cracked their narrative problems or seem to have decided what their picture was really about! Obviously it’s got a good deal to do with the virginal Diana’s sexual anxieties, but beyond this dime-book Freud, as Orson Welles would call it, there’s not a lot of there there! I did like the little coda in which the tabloid jerks’ ultimate fate was revealed, and believe me when I tell you that you won’t see that one coming! I give Dream Demon two plates of red spaghetti!

Friday 7 October 2022

Burl reviews I've Heard the Mermaids Singing! (1987)


On the Toronto tip it’s Burl, here to review some low-budget Canadiana! The picture under review today is a small character comedy that made a pretty big noise in Canada back in the late 80s, mainly because not all that much else was happening at the time! But it’s also a genuine little charmer, and quite rightly served as a solid career-starter for its director, Patricia Rozema! The picture is called I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing!


The story is told in flashback and narrated by flibbertigibbet goose-gal office temp Polly, played by Sheila McCarthy from Die Hard 2! Polly is recording her reminiscences into a video camera, and really it’s more of a confession! It all begins when she takes a position at a small Toronto art gallery located either in a church, or on Church Street, or both! The woman who runs the gallery, known to Polly simply as The Curator, is played by Paule Baillargeon from Jesus of Montreal, and with her Quebecois accent, apparently total knowledge of art, and big city sophistication, she instantly captures Polly’s heart!


Polly’s ardour is not quite romantic, and Polly herself seems nominally heterosexual, but only because her blinkered mentality can’t conceive of any other type of orientation - ha ha, she does not think the mermaids will sing to her! So it’s a big shock to her when The Curator’s sometime girlfriend Mary Joseph, played by the author and part-time actor Ann-Marie MacDonald, appears on the scene! Ha ha, and when Polly witnesses a liplock between the ladies over a closed-circuit television camera artwork, she’s as shocked as if they’d taken off and flown around the room, buzzing like mosquitoes!


This doesn’t diminish her attraction to The Curator, though! And as it happens, Polly is a part-time photographer of things she finds interesting – an Instagrammer avant la lettre, ha ha! – and she packages up her pictures and sends them anonymously to her boss in a pitch to have them displayed in the gallery! But, oh woe, The Curator dismisses them as pure cront, and Polly is heartbroken! She then discovers a great secret The Curator holds, or rather a small series of great secrets, and so realizes that people are not always what they seem, and is thus finally and completely (but not, one hopes, permanently) disillusioned! This leads to her climactic action, and Polly’s subsequent fleeing of the gallery and recording of her confession, and finally to an unexpected and unlikely coda!


Ha ha, this is such a Toronto movie, and as a one-time resident of that city I find that aspect ingratiating! It’s otherwise the sort of whimsical character romance that might come out of any city; but, on an absurdly low budget ($35,000, or so they say), Rozema manages to dress it up with fantasy sequences in which Polly flies around like Superman or else climbs, and falls from, office towers, and she gets some nice cinematography from Douglas Koch, who more recently shot David Cronenberg’s new Crimes of the Future! The MVP of this picture, though, is McCarthy, whose goony-bird looks and seemingly effortless performance are perfect for the tale!


In its low-key way the picture has a lot to say, and if it’s occasionally facile and glib we can chalk that up to the quilicis of youth! It’s an impressive work which made an outsized impression on Canadian cinema, and if it doesn’t deserve all the accolades it got at the time, it deserves a good many of them! I give I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing three suction cups!

Thursday 6 October 2022

Burl reviews The Lair of the White Worm! (1988)


With a touch o’ wurms it’s Burl, here to ponder on a late-80s horror gem that I was fortunate enough to see in the movie theatre with a big responsive crowd! Well, it was a small movie theatre so the crowd was only so big, but the audience responded as though they were watching simply the most uproarious of comedies, and of course in this case that’s entirely apposite! The picture is none other than The Lair of the White Worm!


Ken Russell, who brought us Billion Dollar Brain and many other strange and wonderful pictures, is the madman behind this one! Ha ha, it concerns the Trent sisters, Eve and Mary, played by Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis, who are doing their best to keep the family farm-cum-guest house operating in the wake of their parents’ sudden, mysterious, and total disappearance! Digging in their yard is a young Scottish archeologist called, naturally, Angus, and essayed by Peter Capaldi from Local Hero and Paddington! He finds a big skull that appears to be from some sort of giant reptile, which Russell shoots with a wide lens to make it appear all the more monstrous!


At a party held by the local laird, D’Ampton, played by a voice-cracking Hugh Grant, Angus learns of the local legend of the D’Ampton Worm, to which virgins were sacrificed back in the day! Ha ha, there’s even a song about it performed in the sweaty Celtic rock style! Meanwhile a rich lady called Lady Sylvia, played marvellously by Amanda Donohoe from Starship Troopers 3, returns to her mansion and begins putting the bite on people, starting with an unfortunate boy scout! Ha ha, it seems she’s nearly as reptilian as The Reptile herself! Angus, D’Ampton, and the Trent sisters form a team to try and solve all the mysteries, like what happened to Trent mère and père, is the worm legend for real, who stole the skull, and what’s up with this weirdo Lady Sylvia?


It all comes to a climax with the big worm, Lady Sylvia naked in blue body makeup, one Trent sister hanging over a pit in her underwear and another chained to a wall, and Angus sporting a kilt and producing first a mongoose from his sporran, and later a hand grenade! Ha ha, the theatrical audience I saw the picture with loved all this stuff, and laughed and hooted with great appreciation! (One of the biggest laughs came in the opening credits with the reveal of the cinematographer’s name, Dick Bush! Ha ha, talented guy – he shot Sorcerer, or at least part of it, and Phase IV too – but I guess he got some ribbing at school!)


But the simple fact is that I like this movie! Ha ha, I’m very fond of it indeed! I like the overemphatic musical cues and the frequent use of wide lenses and the touches of wacky gore and the sometimes very goofy acting! Donohoe’s performance in particular is of note – ha ha, she really goes for it, and does a fantastic job! Russell’s tongue is jammed so firmly in his cheek that there might have been bleeding, and there’s a playfulness that most of the cast were in on as well! He maybe tries a little too hard with the hallucination sequences, which have an unfortunate video-y look to them, but they’re a pretty essential part of this eccentric enterprise!


To some viewers, or maybe to most, I suppose it’s all just stupid and silly; and maybe the real worm creature doesn’t look much less fake than the pantomime one seen in the party sequence; and maybe it seems like a parody of a Hammer film, which were parodies of themselves before Hammer stopped making films anyway, and is therefore redundant! I reject all this because the movie is quite simply plenty of fun! Sure, maybe they spend a little too much time loitering in that big cave, but you have to admit, the cave is pretty picturesque! And you can reasonably accuse the movie of not making sense, of being deliberately goofy, of failing to satisfy! I understand most of these criticisms, but I nevertheless give The Lair of the White Worm three games of Snakes & Ladders!

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Burl reviews Police Academy! (1984)


Calling all cars, it’s Burl, here to update you on a popular rip-off comedy of the 1980s! Ha ha, I realize that could describe any number of movies – Up the Creek, for instance, or one of many, many others! But no, this one, which borrows liberally from Stripes and Animal House and both Privates Benjamin and Popsicle, is in fact a picture successful enough to be ripped off itself by movies like Moving Violations and Recruits and Night Patrol! And the picture around which all this rip-offery swirls is of course Police Academy!


Ha ha, as is so often the case, I have a little story about seeing this movie! I was thirteen, and went to a party at some friends of my parents, held at a house a street or two over from my own! There were other kids there and the party was sufficiently decadent that we were able to sneak glasses of white wine and eat all the oysters we could manage, and so we were in quite a state by the time we stumbled to the local movie theatre, just around the corner (the same one in which I’d seen movies like Xanadu and Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown), to take in Police Academy! No surprise that it turned out to be the perfect movie for a gang of just-barely teens snookered on pinot gris and seafood aphrodisiacs, ha ha!


Steve Guttenberg from Cocoon and The Bedroom Window portrays the hero of the piece, Carey Mahoney! Ha ha, who made Steve Guttenberg a star, you ask? This movie did! Mahoney is an allegedly charming parking lot attendant and amateur petty criminal who is forced to join the police academy lest his latest escapade - an aggressive parking job - land him in the pokey! His initial impulse is to get himself thrown out of the academy at the earliest opportunity, but after laying eyes upon the supercute Kim Cattrall, well known from Porky’s and Big Trouble in Little China, he decides to stay and become the best police cadet he can be! But the head instructor Harris, played by G.W. Bailey from Rustler’s Rhapsody and Short Circuit, takes a strong disliking for him, and herein lies the central conflict!


Such as it is, anyway, ha ha! Mahoney is only nominally the hero of the piece, because this is really more of an ensemble production featuring all manner of misfits who've joined the academy all at once! Bubba Smith from Black Moon Rising is the towering florist; Donovan Scott from The Best of Times is portly Leslie Barbara; David Graf from Suture is a frothing, dimwitted gun nut; Bruce Mahler from Friday the 13th part 4 is a clumsy briefcase oaf; and of course Michael Winslow from Grandview U.S.A. is The Man Who Can Make Machine Gun Noises With His Mouth (And Often Does)! George Gaynes from Altered States and Tootsie gives a terrific performance as dotty Commandant Lassard, in charge of the atheneum, while Leslie Easterbrook from Private Resort is Harris’s sexy sub-lieutenant!


When I was a wine-drunk thirteen year-old this movie seemed rollicking and uproarious, but in the cold and sober light of day I’m sorry to say it doesn’t provide quite the laffs it once did! But rather than listing its faults, it would take a lot less time to list the things I still like about it: Gaynes’s performance; the Kensington Market locations used in the climax; the random appearances from familiar Canadian character actors like Michael Reynolds and Don Lake; and maybe a few of the gags here and there, but not many! Otherwise it’s pretty dire, my fond memories of the original cinema screening notwithstanding! I’m going to give Police Academy one and a half podiums!

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Burl reviews The Abominable Dr. Phibes! (1971)


At the playing of the organ, it’s Burl, here to review a popular curiosity of the Seventies! It’s a little of Vincent Price’s wonderful egg magic, and he speaks here without moving his mouth just as when he narrated The Devil’s Triangle! Of course we also know Price from his later roles, such as we find in Dead Heat and Edward Scissorhands, and we know him from his work on the AIP Poe films, and from yet earlier works like Laura and The Baron of Arizona! But this is a taste of his early-70s stuff, and of course it could only be The Abominable Dr. Phibes!


I saw plenty of stills from this movie before ever seeing the movie itself, because it had come out not long before a rush of picture-book histories of horror movies were published, and they all used images from it and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again! And why not? They’re well-shot movies with elaborate and unusual sets and plenty of crazy and bloody goings-on to depict, and if the truth be told, the visual delights with which the picture is well salted, along with of course the outré murders and limited but still delightful Price performance, count as the movie’s main virtues!


It’s a revenge story, even if the motive doesn’t make much sense! As the narrative commences the murders have already begun, and in fact we join a crime in progress as a man in bed is shredded by bats loosed into his bedroom! Ha ha, it seems that we’re located in London in the year 1925, and general purpose genius Dr. Anton Phibes, with the help of his beautiful but mute and mysterious assistant Vulnavia, is taking out the entire surgical team he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table, one by one, with killings inspired by curses in the Old Testament!


On his trail are the dogsbodies of Scotland Yard, represented by a blockheaded policeman named Trout, played by Peter Jeffrey from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen! Ha ha, Trout makes a few leaps of logic that initially give him the appearance of someone with a decent investigative mind, but he’s soon revealed as an incompetent who seems smart only in comparison with his even dimmer superiors! Joseph Cotton from Shadow of a Doubt plays Dr. Vesalius, the leader of the rapidly dwindling surgical team and the obvious final victim, and even he fails to see certain highly evident aspects of the revenge plot coming! And their dimwittedness even reduces the purported genius of Phibes, because we think that after all it wouldn’t take much cleverness to trick this gang of muleheads!


Of course it’s the goofy and horrible murders which stand as the film’s main attractions! We get the bat attack, a headsqueeze from a trick frog mask, an exsanguination (neatly bottled as in Exorcist III), rats on a plane, a freezing by snow machine, a highly unlikely brass unicorn impalement, a munching by locusts, and an attempted acid facewash! This is not strictly speaking Old Testament stuff, but we won’t mind that, ha ha! And of course Price is always a treat, but I find his charms muted here since he doesn’t speak in the accepted oral manner, and when we do hear his voice, the Priciness of it is altered by his stilted and mechanical syntax!


There are plenty of baffling questions, like why Vulnavia, played by Virginia North from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is so devoted to Phibes and his plot! Is she even human, or is she one of the clockwork creations Phibes has playing music in his lair? (Vulnavia is always playing music too, so maybe that’s the giveaway!) And why does Phibes blame the surgeons so thoroughly for his wife’s death? Being so completely unaware of the risks of any surgery in the 1920s makes him come off as something of a reactive idiot! And why was a psychiatrist (the frog mask victim) part of the team at all? Just for the “headshrinker” joke I suppose, but that hardly seems worth it!


Anyway, the movie quite actively resists any attempt to take it seriously, and as mentioned, it has a number of pleasures you can concentrate on instead! It’s never scary, but it is comic-gruesome, and of course, ha ha, the Price is right! I’m going to give The Abominable Dr. Phibes two brussels sprouts!