Saturday, May 27, 2017

175. Fugitive Alien

175. Fugitive Alien (1986)
Directors: Minoru Kanaya, Kiyosumi Kuzakawa
Writers: Keiichi Abe, BunzĂ´ Wakatsuki, Yoshihisa Araki, Hiroyasu Yamamura, Hideyoshi Nagasaki, Toyohiro AndĂ´
From: Sci-Fi Invasion
Watch: Mystery Science Theater 3000
During an invasion of Earth, Ken, a Wolf Raider, accidentally kills one of his comrades and has to seek protection from the very humans he was attacking.
This is episode 0310 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 so I watched that version. Those familiar with the show will know, if not this episode, at least the style of “movie” that this is. Fugitive Alien is edited together from episodes of the Japanese TV series Star Wolf (which itself is based on the American novel trilogy of the same name so translation issues abound). The movie starts with Ken, a member of the evil Wolf Raiders of planet Varna attacking the Earth. Ken refuses to kill a child (coincidentally also named Ken) and, in the process of stopping his comrade and best friend from killing the kid, kills his friend.

Ken flees, is picked up in space by the Baccus III, an Earth ship, and, after some initial scrapes, joins the crew. Then it’s space adventures for all of them, starting with getting a job from a planet being threatened by the Varnan Wolf Raiders. While there, Ken gets arrested, breaks out, meets his former lover who’s the sister of the man he killed and has been sent to kill Ken, reconciles with her, then inadvertently kills her, too. TO BE CONTINUED. But not on this blog.

As I said, I watched the MST3k version and the episode itself is shorter than the uncut film so there are probably plot elements I’m missing. That said, it’d be difficult for this to be anything but plot. The key dramatic moments from several episodes are spliced together to make this movie so what I’m sure was a multi-episode arc of crewman Rocky being suspicious of Ken’s origins, attacking Ken, leaving the ship, and coming back is handled here in the span of about 5-10 minutes while other things are also going on.

It’s fine, a Saturday afternoon diversion. The effects are all right for mid-70’s TV, which is what this is despite the movie being released in the mid-80’s, but they’re not great. You have some nice kitbashing with the ships. They look like a mix between Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and aren’t too bad. Unfortunately, the visual effects surrounding them never rise to that level. As I said, though, it’s fine background noise, easily riffable as MST3k demonstrates, and is offensive neither morally nor aesthetically. You can find the MST3k version on Shout Factory TV or via Hulu if you have a subscription.

Friday, May 26, 2017

174. Black Fist

174. Black Fist aka Bogard (1974)
Directors: Timothy Galfas and Richard Kaye
Writers: Tim Kelly with additional sequences by Andrew Maisner and Richard Kaye
From: Cult Cinema
A black street fighter signs on with the mob but has to go on a revenge rampage once they betray him.
I feel like I’ve been saying “Not much happens” about movies for the past few weeks and that feels like a cop-out. The reality with a lot of these exploitation flicks, though, is that they can tend to lack invention or vigor or even fail to rise to the level of following basic generic conventions. What makes Black Fist interesting is how it fails to meet expectations but still manages to be an enjoyable experience.

Just from the title and one-line synopsis, you would imagine that the main character is or becomes the titular “Black Fist” and rallies the community against both “the man” and the mob to restore dignity and independence to the neighborhood. There’s a bit of that in The Black Godfather where the main character is a player in the crime scene trying to remove heroin from the neighborhood. None of that happens here.

What does happen is we open with Leroy Fisk—who is never referred to as the “Black Fist,” to my ever-lasting disappointment—being introduced to Logan, a mid-level mafioso who runs a street fighting ring. Fisk wants to earn money to take care of his wife and child and, after an exhausting amount of “boy” and the n-word, joins up as a fighter where things get more uncomfortable. The mafioso and his peers keep referring to their fighters as livestock bred for sport. I mean, this is Blaxploitation so there’s an expected level of racism from the villains, but this enters into the realm of the really uncomfortable in that it’s both novel and plausible. The situation doesn’t seem invented and it makes you feel dirty to be a human being.

While Fisk is becoming a great street fighter, crooked cop Dabney Coleman shows up asking for a cut. Fisk learns that Coleman is working with Logan to put the squeeze on the fighters to keep them in their place. Foolishly, Coleman keeps a record of all his crooked dealings in a little black book that Fisk’s friend gets a hold of and passes off to Fisk. That friend is murdered and Fisk decides he wants out. He’ll do 1 more fight for an additional $25,000 and use that money to by a club that, apparently, is now a plot point and one of his goals.

Logan’s boss puts $50,000 on Fisk to win, but Logan sets Fisk up to be killed in the fight. Unfortunately for Logan, Fisk wins. Now Fisk is out from under his thumb and the big boss is leaning on Logan for that money. End part 1.

Part 2 starts with Logan’s goons blowing up Fisk’s car when it has Fisk’s newly-introduced brother-in-law and Fisk’s newly-pregnant wife in it. The movie proceeds largely as you’d expect from there with Fisk going to ground and working to get revenge. In this scenario, the climax should be Fisk facing off against Logan and ultimately killing him. Instead, Logan’s surviving goon shows up at the house of the big boss to say he’s killed Logan (off-screen) and that he wants to be number 1 now. The big boss invites Fisk over to his house, shows him the body of the goon, and tells Fisk that Fisk himself is now number 1. Except that was never one of Fisk’s priorities and he kills the big boss. Then, as Fisk’s earlier lines about how he was going to make big money and take care of his wife echo through his mind, he stumbles into a mirror room and starts punching his reflections, implying that his avarice was the root of all the terror? Maybe? THE END.

I’m not trying to win the favor of Marvel fans when I ask, How do you deny us Fisk vs. Logan? That’s what the movie’s driving towards and Logan is the villain. To have him die, off-screen, without even seeing his body, completely changes the focus. Suddenly it’s not Logan’s mendacity and pride at the root of all the conflict, it’s… what? The organization? The big boss? Fisk himself? It honestly feels like they lost access to the actor playing Logan at the last minute so shot this alternate ending instead. Even the logic of it doesn’t work—how does the big boss know how to contact Fisk? Why would Fisk trust him enough to visit? How do they even know each other at all?

Suffice it to say, the movie has issues. There were expected pleasures that I was denied and missteps that added unnecessary levels of confusion. That said, it moves along well enough and has its share of campy pleasures. Fisk going to ground and putting together the details on who was responsible for the deaths is pretty satisfying as are his acts of vengeance. My copy ends with an MPAA rating card designating this an R, although IMDB says it was initially an X. That said, there’s only one scene with brief nudity. Everything else is language and violence, and the violence isn’t anything that couldn’t be shown on TV today.

In the end, I kind of liked it. There’s enough going on to keep things moving and enough industrial elements—the narrative choices, the shifting rating—to keep it interesting. On top of that, it’s in the public domain so I added an MPEG-2 copy to here. It’s fun enough. I wouldn’t recommend it as a must-see or anything like that, but it’s nice enough to add to your bad-movie rotation when hanging with friends.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

173. Policewomen

173. Policewomen (1974)
Director: Lee Frost
Writers: Lee Frost and Wes Bishop
From: Cult Cinema
A police woman goes undercover in to expose a female mafia that’s smuggling gold.
Look at the year, look at the title, look at the quick description. What you think happens is exactly what happens. Only, it’s done with, I don’t want to say “panache,” or “style,” but there is a certain wit throughout.

The movie starts with the titular (no pun intended… for three whole minutes of screen time. Really) Policewoman Policewomen Lacy Bond booking a prisoner. There’s a prison break where Lacy single-handedly fights off most of the escaping prisoners but, in the end, two escape—some rando and Jeannie Bell from TNT Jackson. The nudity three minutes in is from Bell and her accomplices changing into their escape clothes.

Due to her performance foiling the break, Lacy is offered a position doing fieldwork to take down an emergent “female mafia” that’s exclusively recruiting women and led by the 70-year-old crime lord Maude. They’re smuggling gold into the United States and risking the possibility of crashing the market to make Glenn Beck cry.

Yes, I want that Netflix original series right now.

Lacy infiltrates the group that Bell and her co-escapee have joined and is spotted by the pair. However, Bell offers a cover story claiming to recognize Lacy from a stint they did back in Chicago. Bell later reveals that she’s Secret Service and working to take down the organization as well.

The rest of the movie goes as you’d expect—Lacy and Bell get themselves involved in the big score, signal the cops, get caught, fight their way out, save the day. What I’m leaving out is that Lacy doesn’t infiltrate the group until an hour into this hour and forty minute film.

What happens in the interim is Lacy proving she’s tough enough to handle field work, her male co-workers being either dismissive or patronizing, and her hooking up with the patronizing one because, given the options, at least he recognizes she can do the work.

So this is the kind of movie I’m supposed to really hate—cheap sexism, formulaic plot that they don’t even follow, and an interminable running time—but, and maybe this is just because I’m coming off of watching The Manipulator, I kinda liked it.

There’s a certain vim to the movie and, even though I want to avoid the word, a charm as well. As Good Bad Flicks notes in their review, the star Sondra Currie adds a lot to the picture and there are moments of real wit to be found here. I’m actually surprised at my enjoyment of the movie because it’s from the director of Chain Gang Women which was really uncomfortable. Whereas that was rapey exploitation, this feels like it’s winking a bit at the exploitation tropes, that even its moments of sexism and racism are done with an ironic edge, the joke being that anyone would take this seriously.

The racism, though, is pretty out of left-field and shocking, possibly because it’s so concentrated. It’s literally all in these thirty seconds. That’s a bit much all at once.

Obviously this isn’t for the kids or safe-for-work, but it has its own campy charm and I recommend it on that level. Since it’s so formulaic, you can just have it on in the background while you’re doing other things and still not miss anything—the dramatic moments are cued by the music. It’s also nice for a beer and pretzels evening with friends, and sometimes that’s all you want.

Friday, May 19, 2017

172. The Manipulator

172. The Manipulator (1971)
Director: Yabo Yablonsky
Writers: Yabo Yablonsky from an idea by John Durren
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In
A deranged former actor/director holds a young woman prisoner trying to force her to play Roxanne in his version of Cyrano de Bergerac.
How is this my life? Seriously, how is this my life? I’m watching The Manipulator starring Mickey Rooney. I’m trying to get other things done. I just started reading Jane Eyre. I’ve never read it. I can’t get into it, though, because I’m busy watching the goddamn Manipulator!

Here’s the entire movie: Mickey Rooney is a washed-up Hollywood figure running around an abandoned theater emotionally abusing a woman he’s kidnapped. The first 50 minutes, she’s tied to a chair, the last 40, he’s chasing her through the theater. In the end, he kills himself and she starts hearing the spectral crowds he’s heard because he’s driven her mad. THE END.

There’s ninety minutes of this. Ninety! Ninety minutes of Rooney doing bizarro reads of Cyrano de Bergerac, talking to people that aren’t there, and acting manic in sequences shot like an experimental film. One IMDB commenter said the movie’s impressive in small doses—Rooney’s actually good and the experiments are interesting when kept to five minutes or less.

The chase scene after his victim escapes her chair lasts ten minutes and is shot in slow motion. This is excruciating.

Normally I can bloviate for close to a thousand words on a movie, but there’s nothing here. Faux-acid-inspired sequence after faux-acid-inspired sequence, and I’m someone that likes experimental film. While there are hints of a more interesting movie underlying it with the occasionally inventive visuals, or a nice one-act stage play about a former star struggling with obscurity, what’s actually here is really hard to watch. I could say this feels a bit like a precursor to Birdman, particularly the element of a lead playing a character that echoes some of their real-life creative work, but that’d be giving this film too much credit.

It sucks. Avoid it.

It’s still not as bad as Cavegirl or Going Steady.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

First-Year Writing Syllabus: The Internet--Connection, Disconnection, and Control

With my semester done, I thought I'd share some of my teaching material. I'm always curious how other people put their classes together as well as the reasons behind their choices. Even though I've been teaching for nine years, I'm still worried that I'm getting things wrong and shortchanging my students. Also, I get very excited by process and transparency. If I can see how something was put together, I can apply that same logic to my own situation. So, with that in mind, I've decided to share my most recent syllabus--partly for other people looking for a model to construct their own courses, partly to finally put it behind me as I'm tired of teaching this material. I've been teaching variations of this material for 3 years. I'd like to talk about something else. Also, since the subject is the Internet and social media, the material ages out pretty quickly.

I've stripped the syllabus down to include only my own contributions. All the university and department-specific language such as course goals and necessary bureaucratic language such as accessibility and academic freedom policies has been removed. These things are important, essential even, but they're neither unique to my course nor composed by me so I've left them out. Likewise I've left out the day-by-day schedule that included paper due dates, conferences, and library days. Instead, the readings are sorted by unit in the order that they were assigned. If you want to adapt this for your own classes (please do), sort things as they'd best fit your schedule.

At the end I've included additional and alternate readings that had been part of earlier incarnations of this syllabus as well as why they were ultimately cut.

If you find this post useful, would like me to share more materials, or have any questions, please let me know.

Course Description:
The focus of this class is technology—specifically the Internet and social media—and our personal relationship to it. We will begin with an overview of how technology is discussed and a rejection of the Manichean good/bad framework and instead focus on a both/and means of interpretation and discussion. The second unit focuses on Lessig’s maxim, “code is law,” with discussions on the structure of technology and how it relates to issues of privacy, power, and control. The third and final unit uses Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together as a baseline for examining how we interact emotionally with technology and what questions we should be asking.

To be successful in this course, you do not need to have any prior knowledge about technology, code, or epistemology. All you need is to be curious and fully engaged in what we’re doing in class and in our required paper assignments.

[The course description that lays out not only what the class is going to be about, but hints at my own interests and hobbyhorses. I'm not interested in students giving me the "right" answer and certainly not interested in them agreeing with me. I want them to articulate their own position. With that goal in mind, I try to select topics that they, hopefully, will be able to find their own way into or already have an opinion on. The Internet, smartphones, and social media is an easy go-to, but carries with it the threat of simple moralizing and thought-destroying cliches. "We're all worse for using technology." "Things were better before the Internet." "Social media makes us all self-obsessed." Thus the initial push against the "good/bad framework." I wanted the students to ask why, how, and to push through simplistic interpretations.]

Course Texts:
Sherry Turkle—Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Institute of Network Cultures—Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives
Michael Mandiberg, Editor—The Social Media Reader

[Textbooks cost too much and are part of the Ponzi-scheme of higher ed. That's a whole long rant, but it's one of the things that led me to start looking for Creative Commons-licensed textbooks. I'd taught some first-year writing courses about copyright (another hobbyhorse that I'll detail later) and a lot of those books are distributed under a CC-license which made availability a non-issue. A few years later, all the textbooks I was reviewing for my community college research writing course provided useful structures, but not so useful as to justify the price. Then I found Stephen D. Krause's The Process of Research Writing. It hit all the key points and, best of all, was free. Even better, the school was willing to print up copies of the book for the students and I just passed them out on the first day. So when I was looking for collections dealing with social media, I was thrilled to find not one, but two books released under CC-licenses. In addition to making the readings available to students, the collections included many readings we didn't get to which served as additional research resources for the students' papers. With the materials from the books providing a structure, I was able to flesh out the course with further readings from various websites--readings, I should note, that I was exposed to in Jeff Osbourne's Reading Pop Culture, 2nd Edition. It's an excellent volume and I've had great success teaching it in several courses. It's just an unfortunate reality that a collection of contemporary readings is largely going to be pulled from the Internet making alternate copies very easy to find.]

(SMR)=Social Media Reader
(UUR)=Unlike Us Reader

Unit 1
Sherry Turkle-TED Talk
Neil Postman-"The Judgment of Thamus"
Nikal Saval-"Wall of Sound: The iPod Has Changed the Way We Listen to Music"
Clay Shirky-"Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" (SMR)
Chris Anderson-"The Long Tail" (SMR)
[The first unit looks at various ways we talk about technology, using the introduction to Postman's Technopoly as a starting point. He argues that technological change is neither good nor bad,
but ecological--one change changes everything. That allowed us to look at the writers and ask in which ways they were unduly optimistic or pessimistic. The readings include technophobes (Turkle and Saval) and technophiles (Shirky and Anderson) as well as different styles of writing which allowed for a variety of discussions around content and form.]

Unit 2
Chiara Atik-"Public Displays of Transaction"
Bruce Schneier-Alternative Radio: "The Internet, Privacy, and Power" (MP3 & Transcript available for purchase)
Felix Stalder-"Between Democracy and Spectacle" (SMR)
Jenny Kennedy-"Rhetorics of Sharing" (UUR)
Nathan Jurgenson and P.J. Rey-"The Fan Dance: How Privacy Thrives in an Age of Hyper-Publicity" (UUR)
[The second unit discussed how these technologies operate, how they work as structures, and what kinds of behavior they encourage or discourage. I used Schneier's talk as a baseline and shared the podcast episode I had of it as well as the transcript (in a response to a student asking about options for those with hearing issues. Having the transcript made things easier for all the students and was something I should have thought of myself beforehand. It's a priority in my course design now). This is the unit that gets closest to my particular interest in social media and big data--structures of control. So there are discussions about NSA surveillance, Google hoovering up all our data, and just what mass data aggregation means--good and bad.]

Unit 3
Sherry Turkle-Alone Together Part 2
Nathan Jurgenson-"The IRL Fetish"
Jacob Burak-"Escape From the Matrix"
Jennifer Bleyer-"Love the One You’re Near"
[The final unit starting with the second half of Sherry Turkle's book. The first half, while compelling, deals with robots and how much we're willing to imbue them with emotional qualities, and that's a topic too far removed from most of the discussions we were having in the class. Plus there's always the time constraints. I don't read Turkle as ardently anti-tech (the way Jurgenson does in his piece from the unit, which served as its own discussion point), but instead poking at the idea of all this connectivity. Why do we want it? What does it do? How have we changed? She interrogates things with a nervous ambivalence and, while she does fall on the critical side, I think models that both/and structure I want my students to pursue. The other pieces in the unit speak to some of the same issues, but take on a new context after the first and second unit. Where the pieces are unceasingly critical of technology and see it as removed from the world, the students have Postman and the Unit 1 readings to fall back on. Where the pieces talk about how the technology works and who benefits, the students have the Unit 2 readings to fall back on.]

Additional and alternate readings:
Willian Deresiewicz-"Solitude and Leadership" [I used to start my courses with this reading because I liked a lot of the points it made and the way I felt it articulated what I wanted my students to get out of not just my course, but their broader college experience. It was never intended to be used as a source in their papers, though, and I would constantly see it pop up. That coupled with time constraints ultimately made me drop it, although I still think it's a good piece and much better than the book that grew out it, Excellent Sheep.]
Vicessimus Knox-"On Novel Reading" [This had been part of the initial Unit 1 readings as an example of how people have always had moral panics over new mediums. Conceptually, it's hilarious now to think of people being critical of children reading novels--not what kind of novels, but novels in and of themselves--and it was interesting to highlight how the language of outrage hasn't changed despite the shifting centuries and technologies. Unfortunately, it works here as, at best, a curiosity, and the work it does as an example of criticism is done by Postman quoting Plato's fears of writing.]
Sonali Kohli-"Pop Culture’s Transgender Moment" [This was paired with Anderson's "The Long Tail" as an example of what the infinite space of the web allowed. Since its purpose was largely to compliment another piece, I cut it for time and recommended it to students writing about "The Long Tail" instead.]
danah boyd [No specific piece here, but boyd was someone I found myself returning to a lot throughout the semester, either by recommending specific pieces of hers to students or seeing her pop up independently in their work. She writes both excellently and accessibly about social media and many of her pieces could be swapped into this course in any unit. She's made much of her writing available on her website as well, which is always appreciated.]

Copyright: [My big hobbyhorse that was easier to discuss with my students six or seven years ago when mashups were still a thing and people still worried about getting sued by the RIAA. The intellectual property movement, as many others, seemed to lose steam with the election of President Obama, which I don't really understand. Anyway, these are the materials I used for those courses. The Vaidhyanathan and Lessig pieces from The Social Media Reader were initially in the second unit, but were cut as introducing copyright into that discussion, while appropriate in the context of "control," took the discussion too far afield. There was a whole lot of context I had to give so that the pieces would make sense and, compared to the other readings, they were pretty long. However, if you were interested in swapping a unit out for a discussion on Net Neutrality, these could be useful background readings or resources to offer to your students.]
Siva Vaidhyanathan-"Open Source as Culture/Culture as Open Source" (SMR)
Lawrence Lessig-"REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law" (SMR)
Negativland-"Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain"
Lawrence Lessig-Free Culture
Kembre McLeod-Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity
RIP!: A Remix Manifesto
Good Copy, Bad Copy

Negativland-Over the Edge Radio Archive [Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value. Just an additional bit of weirdness to throw in if you're considering a copyright unit. This is an archive of nearly every episode of Negativland's radio show Over the Edge. There's a lot there, but I'd recommend the episodes remixing Lessig's Free Culture or "All Art Radio: A History of Noise" for a rundown on collage (and also because it's the episode that made me a fan). Each episode is 3-5 hours long so, if you want to subject your students to it or use it in the classroom, you'll have to edit it down.]

This ended up a lot longer than I thought it would (I specifically chose not to post the paper prompts because I thought it would make this too long), but hopefully it's interesting if not useful. Again, if you have any questions or would like to see more material, feel free to comment.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

171. Night of the Blood Beast

171. Night of the Blood Beast (1958)
Director: Bernard L. Kowalski
Writer: Martin Varno
From: Sci-Fi Invasion; Pure Terror
An experimental rocket crashes upon its return to Earth, seemingly killing the pilot. However, members of the project find anomalies with the body and strange things start happening back at base.
A classic Corman cheapie, this film doesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t have characters so much as roles. Seriously, none of these people stand out, they just move the plot forward. I mean, the movie features four white guys named John, Dave, Steve, and Dr. Wyman, and Dr. Wyman dies. The only reason John stands out from the other two white guys is he’s a corpse, and even then it gets a bit confusing.

Without characters, the movie is just plot: pilot crashes, is found dead, things seem a bit off at the crash site, and something skitters away when no one’s looking. Back at base, the corpse has a foreign substance in its blood, a magnetic field is blocking the radio and then shorts out all the electrical equipment. Monster emerges, corpse wakes up, is actually harboring alien embryos, and tries to convince people monster isn’t evil. Meet-retreat, meet-retreat, finally settle down to parlay with the monster that can now talk, hideous plan revealed, monster destroyed, humanity saved… for now.

I’ve complained with earlier films that there’s no character, the plot’s obvious, and the final product is incredibly boring. While this also has no character and an obvious plot, it’s fun for being formulaic. It has a few inventions and works well within its constraints. I mean, a big positive of this film is that it’s only 63 minutes long. Sure, it follows all the expected steps, but it does it efficiently and quickly. There’s no bloat here.

You can expect that from a Corman production, though. The Wikipedia article on this movie is interesting in how it details conflicts between the Cormans and the writer that led to a severing of connections between Corman and the WGA. It also describes the cheapness of Corman, including repurposing the monster from Teenage Caveman for this movie. To be fair, it’s a good costume.

I was going to say the movie’s fun and very riffable, and then I saw that it’s episode 0701 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 which makes that point moot. I enjoyed it, though, and recommend it to fans of cheap midnight movies. The movie seemingly is in the public domain so I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to here.

Friday, May 12, 2017

170. The Demons of Ludlow

170. The Demons of Ludlow (1983)
Director: Bill Rebane
Writers: William Arthur with additional dialogue by Alan Ross
From: Chilling
In celebration of Ludlow’s bicentennial, the family of the founder deliver a special piano to the town, only the piano carries with it a power that will fulfill a curse laid upon descendants of the town’s founders 200 years before.
The third film from director Bill Rebane to pop up in this series, the previous two being The Astral Factor and The Cold, this piece also demonstrates his mastery of the 80’s-afternoon-TV form. Think of him as a mid-budget Don Dohler.

The movie starts with 3 establishing shots: someone we don’t know walks through the snow to a house, a woman wearing a corset and heels is trying to decide what to wear, and a jug band plays down at the ol’ town hall where they’re celebrating the town’s bicentennial. With that you have a sense of the tenor and competence of the film—stuff’s going to happen and there’ll be (mostly) TV-safe titillation along the way.

The man is the town’s Reverend, the woman his wife, and they share a snarky exchange about how much she drinks and demonstrating a general discontentment in their marriage. Neither matters to the plot and neither element is brought up again, but the scene did allow this reviewer to clarify that, yes, she’s getting ready for the evening and is only wearing a corset and high heels. Super.

The town is Ludlow, celebrating it’s bicentennial, and the family of the late great-grandson of the founder, also named Ludlow, has sent an antique piano to commemorate the event. Most people are impressed by the gift, a few say there’s something creepy about it, and a young couple decides to sneak off to fool around while the piano’s played.

Ghosts show up and kill them, natch, but everyone in town thinks they’ve just run off together.

Meanwhile, a reporter who spent her childhood in the town has returned out of pure curiosity and is investigating old tales her grandfather told her, including tales of the piano.

Anyway, haunted piano, ancient curse, yadda yadda. There aren’t any characters here and nothing really surprising. The Reverend and the Reporter (coming this fall to ABC) are the only ones who are suspicious of the piano and its connections to the town’s history. People keep dying and the mayor refuses the Reverend’s demands that they bring in outside help. The movie becomes a bit of a cross between Jaws and Poltergeist at this point, although for no explicable reason. It’s never clear why the mayor is so resistant to calling the cops, and then ghosts cut his head off.

The Reverend digs up “the list” which details all the original settlers of the town and what crimes they committed against each other and ultimately against Ludlow himself. The Reporter, while talking to her colleague, says there were rumors that Ludlow was a vampire or witch, that something happened with children, and he was run out of town and forced back to England. What the Reverend reveals is that Ludlow played the piano a bunch, which annoyed everyone, so they cut off his hands. Plus his ten-year-old daughter got sick and died, so he blamed the town. Hence a centuries-long curse that’s finally coming to fruition!

This culminates in the Reverend and Reporter facing off against the piano, first trying to write the proper notes on it to dispel the curse and then just attacking it with an ax. Credit where due, the piano starts flying up and down a la Hausu, and then all the Puritan-era ghosts appear. They cut off the Reverend’s hands, the Reporter (suddenly in period dress) flees but finds herself unable to cross the town’s border, and then that stops when the Reverend’s hands are restored to Ludlow’s ghost. THE END.

As you’d expect from a Rebane film, it’s generically bad. It remains watchable and makes some budgetary choices that are unintentionally funny—the piano never sounds like a piano, instead always sounding like a bank of synths—but it also doesn’t demand any kind of attention. You could turn this movie on at any point and immediately be caught up because there are no details that need explaining. The set-up is obvious throughout. Even the echoes, intentional or otherwise, of Carnival of Souls amplify the feeling that this is a movie you’ve seen before.

So I’m in the middle on it. It’s fine enough if it comes on in the background, but I wouldn’t direct anyone to it. It has a few campy excesses, but not enough to make the movie riffable or enjoyable on an ironic level. While it’s not as boring as Alien Prey, it’s not as much fun as his follow-up, The Cold which managed the cheap movie mash-up style more effectively. If I were to recommend anything, it’d be that or the two episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring his movies, 0421: Monster-A-Go-Go and 0810: The Giant Spider Invasion.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

169. Alien Prey

169. Alien Prey aka Prey (1977)
Director: Norman J. Warren
Writers: Max Cuff from a story by Quinn Donoghue
From: Sci-Fi Invasion
An alien arrives at an isolated English estate where his presence exacerbates the murderous tension between the couple living there.
This movie’s a little difficult to describe because nothing happens. I know I say that about a lot of these movies, but it’s particularly true here. We open with Jessica waking up in her room to flashing green lights. She runs into Jo’s room to tell her about it, but Jo dismisses the event. Meanwhile, a couple is making out in a car. An alien attacks the man, Anders, and takes on his form to kill the woman.

The next day, Jo and Jessica come across the alien Anders while walking in the woods. Jessica invites him back to their house, but Jo wants him gone. She doesn’t like anyone disturbing the solitude she and Jessica have.

And things play out from there. Jo and Jessica are lesbians, which is related as bluntly as that, as well as vegetarians, which feels like it’s played up as further evidence of their strangeness. There had been a previous visitor to the estate, their friend Simon, but he left early one morning without saying anything.

Jessica finds Simon’s blood-stained shirt and realizes Jo must have killed him. Jo keeps playing mind game with Jessica, doing a push-pull thing, but the movie can’t decide where it stands: is she an emotionally-abusive partner or is she unhinged? In other words, where does the threat lie? That question can be asked of the entire movie because, with all this talk, you might well forget there’s a murderous alien staying at their house, wandering around, and watching them in a gratuitously long sex scene. The movie’s not sure if it wants to be pensive or exploitative and manages neither.

In the end, Jessica and Jo have a fight, Jessica says she’s leaving, Jo knocks her out and goes to dig a grave. Jessica wakes up and begs Anders to take her to London. They have sex where he transforms into his alien form—somewhere between a Na’vi and a reject from Cats—and eats her. Jo walks in on this, flees, and falls into the grave herself where Anders finds and presumably kills her. The final shot is Anders radioing his ship to say Earth is full of easy prey that’s high in protein. THE END.

Like I said, it’s not clear what the threat is supposed to be in the movie—is it Anders or is it Jo? The movie never decides so the tension never builds. Moments of Anders being a dangerous force are pretty removed from what’s happening in the house and it’s not clear that he’s hurting people for any purpose beyond fear and self-defense. Thus there’s no sense of him getting closer and closer to hurting Jessica and Jo or that he will. In fact, the question becomes will Jo hurt Anders? Likewise, Jessica’s slow realization that Jo murdered their friend isn’t slow at all—she realizes it before we as the audience even think to suspect something. On top of that, even though Jessica thinks Jo is a threat, she never starts working to get away until the very last minute. The movie never articulates the threat that you’re supposed to be paying attention to.

So, obviously, not a recommend. It’s boring-bad, not funny-bad, and the exploitation moments like the extended sex scene feel like cop-outs. It’s like they did an initial cut of the movie and realized their thoughtful psychological sci-fi thriller was none of those things so they threw in some salacious elements to get people to say something, anything, “please God, just don’t ignore us!”, about it. Skip it. It’s not worth any kind of attention.

Friday, May 05, 2017

168. TNT Jackson

168. TNT Jackson (1974)
Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Writers: Dick Miller and Ken Metcalfe
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In
Martial arts master TNT Jackson goes to China to investigate her brother’s disappearance and attracts the attention of a heroin smuggling operation.
Our movie opens in China where Charlie, an assistant to a local heroin distributor catches Stag buying drugs. Stag realizes he’s caught, tries to escape, but Charlie and his men corner and kill him. Why his buying drugs is a problem isn’t clear, but it’s enough to bring his sister, TNT Jackson, over to visit.

She goes looking for Joe’s place because that’s the last contact point she had for her brother. It takes her a while to get there because it’s in the bad part of town that the cabbie won’t go to. He drops her at the edge of the district where she’s immediately attacked by a group of thugs, each of whom she defeats using her sleepy Ambien-style kung-fu.

Maybe the first thing to note about the movie is the lead actors aren’t good fighters. The only good fight sequences are done by Shatnerianly obvious stunt doubles. That’d be okay if the actors were good actors, but they’re not.

Speaking of bad actors, a car with Angel, a white woman who alternates speaking in a low mumble or lazy whisper, picks up TNT and drops her off at Joe’s. As TNT’s talking to him, one of his customers gets handsy with his assistant and a fight breaks out. TNT joins in and Charlie arrives to watch her handily defeat all comers. She’s managed to capture his attention and esteem.

By the way, that’s three fight scenes in the first thirteen minutes. Well done, movie, well done.

Things inevitably progress, although lugubriously for a movie with a 71-minute runtime. Angel and Charlie both work for Sid, a white drug kingpin distributing million-dollar-amounts of heroin. He also has a Chinese assistant, Ming. For unexplained reasons, they all become obsessed with TNT, initially wanting her to join their group as a prostitute and then thinking she’s responsible for attacks on two of their drug deals. Charlie says she has nothing to do with it, Ming suspects her, and Angel is meeting with a mysterious figure on the side. Intrigue!

TNT learns her brother is dead, tries to infiltrate Charlie’s group, then, somehow (the transitional scene isn’t there), is chasing Angel through a graveyard. They have a fight, TNT wins, and Angel admits to being a cop trying to set up a large-scale sting operation to take down Sid.

Yadda yadda. TNT, naked (oh, that’s why she was cast), fights Ming and his crew in the dark then hooks up with Charlie. When she sees him light a cigarette with her brother’s lighter, she realizes he’s the killer. She follows him to an island festival where Sid has arranged a face-to-face meeting with all the major distributors in the region. Too much of his money’s been stolen in these foiled hand-offs for him to buy the drugs with cash and he needs to talk them into trusting him.

Various betrayals later, all the drug dealers are in the hands of the police, Sid and Angel throw each other out a window and presumably die (we don’t see them land or an aftermath), and TNT and Charlie have their Inigo Montoya moment. They fight, she literally punches a hole through him, THE END. No epilogue, no follow-up.

It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a terribly great movie either. Despite the constant action, I was falling asleep twenty-five minutes in and the movie had a hard time holding my interest. So much of it feels perfunctory, which makes sense in its own way. This is from the same director as Fighting Mad which I reviewed in February. I said that movie “is the way it is because the producers sat down and said, ‘What’s awesome?’ Then they put it all into a script,” and there’s arguably the same process happening here, but with the producers asking, “what’s selling well now?” That makes it a little less joyful and a little more sleazy. The fight sequences, though, are just as hokey and poorly executed which provides its own layer of entertainment.

The movie is eminently riffable, especially if you get into the lightning-quick pushback against other characters’ overt racism without cringing too much at that very racism. It’s a fine line. Those moments produce some of the most viscerally satisfying “fuck you”s I’ve seen in movies lately, but you gotta hear a lot of really racist shit before they’re delivered.

In other words, this one ain’t for the kids and is certainly NSFW. However, if you have your beer-and-pretzels crew looking for something to inflict your wit upon, this is a good choice. The movie’s in the public domain and I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to the Internet Archive here. It might even be worth doing a Cirio Santiago double-feature with this and Fighting Mad, but if you only have time for one, go for Fighting Mad. It’s sillier, less sleazy, and goes so much further off the rails.