Lifetime Theater: Virtual Lies

They say all literary conflicts can be boiled down to Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate. And we wonder why women feel so left out. It’s fitting that the Lifetime Network would upend these conventions a bit, and more than just replacing “Man” with “Woman.” Although that is some of it.

I have yet to watch a Lifetime movie that’s Woman vs. Fate, and despite the sexism endemic in even some of the smallest social interactions, Woman vs. Society has yet to appear. I imagine the former is harder to do with Lifetime’s implicit mission statement, which is to make movies that are still understandable even if you miss chunks of them while occupied with household chores. The latter is likely too “political” for the aggressively middle-of-the-road Lifetime network, because it’s apparently controversial that women get a raw deal.

What you do see are Woman vs. Man, Woman vs. Woman, Woman vs. Child, and Woman vs. Self. Woman vs. Man is the most obvious of these, as they’re the ones we think of when we hear “Lifetime movie.” An abusive husband, a cheating husband, a husband running an underground arena where runaways fight angry raccoons… the possibilities are endless, and Lifetime, and its many imitators, have mined the concept almost to oblivion. Woman vs. Child sounds wrong, as it’s attacking the very traditional ideas of femininity Lifetime likes to support, but in these cases the child has an issue, whether it’s drug use, autism, or fighting raccoons in underground arenas. For Woman vs. Self, it’s the main character who is dealing with a personal problem, like drug use, autism, or fighting raccoons in underground arenas. I, for one, will never forget Valerie Bertinelli in One Woman’s Struggle Against Addiction: The Bernice “Fuck Raccoons” Jackson Story.

Woman vs. Woman is the oddball among these. Part of Lifetime’s assumed mission statement is female empowerment. Considering how many networks, and swaths of the culture at large, are devoted to male empowerment, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a channel (or, gasp, several!) devoted to this. But women are, at least stereotypically, team players, while the men are the rugged individualists, or objectivist assholes depending on your taste. While Man might happily be versus Man, shouldn’t Woman get along with Woman? After all, they’re in this together.

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And, let’s be honest, probably all synced up.

This is where Lifetime gets weird. And maybe a little sexist. (Side note here: as a guy, I find it weird calling out sexism unprompted like this. Am I right? Who knows? I’m far more comfortable having a woman tell me something is sexist and understanding it from that angle. So bear that in mind as I move on.) Woman vs. Woman stories are almost invariably of a single type: the nightmare scenario when a younger, more sexually adventurous, probably more glamorous, woman wants to steal your man.

That’s a little gross, right? I mean, women have way more going on in their lives than just their guys? Take Jamie Smith, the heroine of this week’s entry. She’s working two jobs, (she says, though I only see one, which is enough) as a social worker for troubled kids in the wilds of Seattle, British Columbia. When she comes home, she often finds that her out-of-work husband has neglected to take care of their son, or forgotten dinner, while he stares at his computer.

You probably guessed what’s going on here as soon as you read the title. Or else you took it to literally mean a virtual lie. As in something that’s not a lie. No, the husband is having an affair online with some woman calling herself Hotstuff26 who has the weirdly disturbing habit of typing in all caps, giving the impression all her sexy notes are shouted into the screen. They’ve never met in the flesh as she lives in New York, but they’ve been exchanging a few PG-rated pictures. It is possibly the tamest affair that’s ever happened.

Jamie has the husband cut the affair off, and after a few rocky scenes, seems to have mostly forgiven him. Jamie is a saint. Like a straight up, living saint. Her tears can cure the shingles, and if you pray to her at night, your internet connection is faster.

The other side of the affair turns out to be Ashley, a highly unstable young woman who works as a nurse at the kid’s pediatrician (who, in the cold open, we saw getting murdered… or possibly transformed into a mannequin. The FX are really bad.) Ashley decides it’s go time, and proceeds to harass Jamie online by somehow mocking up a weird stripper youtube video, setting her up on a Craigslist date with a rapist, and planting articles about her affairs with students. Ashley escalates to murder when the doctor discovers her looking into the Smiths’ files, and later kidnaps the husband and duct tapes him to an antique wheelchair. Here’s the thing: if you have an antique wheelchair in your home, you’re a villain. No two ways about it.

Jamie, of course, triumphs against this homewrecker, although it does require a heroic second wind from her husband, when he hilariously clubs Ashley over the back of the head to rescue his wife. The movie ends with the nuclear family together again, and Ashley getting the help she needs, both for the mental illness and the blunt force trauma to her thinkin’ blob.

This is a case of Woman vs. Woman, with the man as the ultimate prize. As odd as this is, it still places the man in a better position than most mainstream movies place a woman. In a Man vs. Man story, it’s likely that the woman (the love interest, and possibly only female speaking role), is an ancillary goal, and something the hero gets as an additional prize for his eventual victory. This is true for anything from Karate Kid, to Die Hard, to any Indiana Jones or James Bond movie. At least here the guy is the goal. Although why, I can hardly imagine. It’s not like guys are hard to come by, and this one has already proven to be substandard.

So what did we learn? Well, if someone says they’re from New York that doesn’t make it so. If one of your employees is looking at records they shouldn’t, just let that shit slide. She’s probably a few seconds from murdering you. And lastly, your husband might be having an affair, and she might be insane. So really measure how much he’s worth to you before committing.

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Now Fear This: Stir of Echoes

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SLEEP

1999 was the year of The Sixth Sense. The year when we thought a stunning new talent, someone improbably combining Spielberg’s skill at juxtaposing the mundane and magical with Hitchcock’s lean storytelling and flair for suspense. To those who know what followed, or who have even heard of The Happening, all I can say is, look, we didn’t know. We couldn’t see into the future, and The Sixth Sense was and remains a good movie, albeit one built entirely on the back of a single, stunning twist. The unfortunate thing that everyone forgets was that 1999 featured another ghost movie — Stir of Echoes — one that has been largely forgotten, despite having more staying power.

Some of this might be due to the men behind the camera. M. Night Shyamalan was a wunderkind with the kind of pretentious name normally reserved for professional wrestlers and people that write Divergent fanfic, announcing his presence with a stylistic tour de force. The man behind Stir of Echoes was David Koepp, a lifelong Hollywood jobber who generally makes the kinds of movies no one will admit to liking. Chances are, if you go through his CV as either writer or director, you’re likely to find one or two you have lingering affection for, and several you despise. Arguably his best-loved movie is Jurassic Park, which he wrote the screenplay for, but he had very little to do with how well that succeeded or failed.

Stir of Echoes came from a Richard Matheson novel, and for those who don’t know, Richard Matheson is better at writing horror than you and I will ever be at anything. His work has been plundered over the years by TV and movies ranging from the brilliant to the terrible, and it’s a credit to him that the ideas beneath have gone from stories we tell to culture we know. Matheson was able to tap into the id like no horror writer before or since — and I’m including Stephen King, a man who outsells Matheson and one who is a far better writer than the revisionists like to claim — causing his work to elevate to a place so rarified, it’s like it doesn’t even need a writer anymore.

The adaptation of Stir of Echoes is top notch, but it was not built on that twist that made The Sixth Sense such a part of the zeitgeist. Flashy tricks like that, even ones pulled honestly as in Sixth Sense, are often overvalued by mass audiences. While they’re easier to be mad at when they wilt under scrutiny, they are still fundamentally magic tricks. Think of them like the Cheetos of fiction. Tasty, but not exactly filling. Genre fiction tends to lean on tricks like these, which is one of the few justified reasons it’s considered the ghetto of entertainment. Stir of Echoes is a good story told honestly, a horror-drama where the motivations of every character make intrinsic sense and do stand up to later analysis. In retrospect, it never had a chance.

The movie opens with the one trope that still gets me every time: the creepy child. A little boy hums a snatch of music that hovers just outside of recognition as he has a one-sided conversation with an unseen partner. As the scene finishes, the boy asks, “Does it hurt to be dead?” and the reveal is that he’s talking to no one at all. Though the little boy, Jake, seems like he’s going to be some kind of devil child, for the most part the usual tropes here are subverted. Jake is able to perceive things he can’t understand, and does not yet have the language skills to ask about them. It plays very well in the secret worlds children develop that are tragically forgotten by the time they are able to meaningfully communicate.

Jake’s parents are Tom (Kevin Bacon) and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) a pair who are still holding onto a youth of tattoos, rock music, and big dreams. While Maggie is far more comfortable in her lower middle-class existence, Tom chafes against what he sees as a curse of being ordinary. It’s a very real character note, and handled well both by Koepp and Bacon. Growing up, you think you’ll be the one shaping the world, and then life sets in. Before you know it, you’ve discovered that “ordinary” is that way for a reason. It happens to most of us.

It’s why Tom grabs hold so hard when something remarkable does happen to him. At a party, his snarky sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas playing a very Illeana Douglas role) hypnotizes him, leaving behind a post-hypnotic suggestion to keep an open mind. The hypnosis scene is excellent, a bravura display of immersive visuals that uses actual techniques, and as a side benefit, is absolutely stuffed with foreshadowing. This scene (as well, as the flashbacks to it, and the second hypnosis attempt) makes me think Koepp is a better visual stylist than he lets himself be.

Tom’s newfound open mind re-acquaints him with the psychic powers lying latent inside him, powers his son has to a frightening degree. A series of terrifying and bizarre visions follow, caused by a restless ghost. While he spirals into madness, an increasingly desperate Maggie tries to hold the family together. On a day out, she encounters another psychic who recognizes Jake’s talents with a single look. The later scene, when Maggie crashes a meeting of other psychics, suggests a much larger world than the one we’re seeing, a confident flourish that gives the movie the weight of reality.

What the psychic tells Maggie is fascinating. Essentially, Tom is communicating with a world he can only perceive for isolated, unpredictable moments, likening it to holding an unreliable flashlight in a dark tunnel. He can’t truly understand what’s happening to him, and this can look a lot like madness. There is a clock, though. The ghost wants something from Tom, and from her perspective, she’s already talked to him. Now she’s growing angry. I don’t want to spoil any more of the journey, as it’s a wonderfully creepy exploration of both psychic power and ghost stories.

Other than the ones I mentioned, the cast includes some great turns by Kevin Dunn and a young Jennifer Morrison, most famous now as the lead on Once Upon a Time. Zachary Cope, who plays little Jake, does some great small child acting as well. Only ever appeared in one other thing, too. Casting a kid this small is basically a crap shoot, and this is a big, pivotal role. Jake is the linchpin of the entire film, and he has to be able to handle creepy child moments as well as the more relatable parts when he’s just aware enough to know his parents are having problems. The kid nails them both.

It’s been long enough since that storied year of 1999 that we can have two great ghost movies. It’s time to rediscover the forgotten one.

 

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Yakmala: Dreamcatcher

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Even the poster has no idea what’s going on.

No one was ready for Dreamcatcher. This was supposed to be it, finally. The acknowledged master of mass-culture horror teams up with the man behind some of the greatest movies ever made, assembles an interesting cast of not-quite-stars, and gets the kind of budget to make anything happen. “Anything” as it turns out, did in fact happen. In the butt. In all the butts.

Tagline: Evil Slips Through

More Accurate Tagline: Evil Slips Through… Your Bunghole

Guilty Party: Director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan. Most of Kasdan’s flops and failures have been overshadowed by his good work, but the man is not immune to crap. No pun intended. Well, kind of. Look, if he’s going to make an entire movie based around nothing but poop jokes gone horrifyingly awry, I can’t be expected to exercise more self-control.

Synopsis: Four middle aged friends are psychics now, because writing convincing motivations for your characters to do things is hard. There’s Henry, a suicidal therapist (Thomas Jane), Jonesy, a college professor (Damian Lewis), Pete, a used car dealer with the incredible ability to find things (Timothy Olyphant), and Beaver, a shabby trainwreck of a man with an undeniable oral fixation.

Jonesy gets a vision of the mysterious “Duddits” to cross a street, and then gets totally creamed by a CGI car. Some period of time later, the four men congregate at a cabin in the snowy woods of Maine (I mean, probably), where they bond while reciting the kind of dialogue a freshly-crashed alien might write if all he knew of human culture was the career of Adam Carolla. Interspersed with all of this are flashbacks to their childhood in the ‘80s, where it’s revealed that Duddits is a severely mentally challenged kid from their hometown of Derry, Maine that they rescued from bullies. In gratitude, he gave them superpowers. Like you do.

A hunter shows up at the cabin one day, claiming to have been lost in the woods, and he has really bad gas and a rash on his face. They put him to bed, but wouldn’t you know it, he tracks blood all over the house, leading right to the bathroom. They have a conversation with the hunter, then break down the door, finding that he’s keeled over both mid-sentence and mid-poop. And there’s blood, like everywhere. I can only assume he had been breakdancing in the middle of the bathroom, spraying gore from his anus like a ruptured Detroit water main.

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Like this, but with blood poop.

Oh yeah, and a carnivorous worm comes out of his butt and kills Beaver. RIP, Beav. Then the creature’s dad shows up, who basically looks like a giant, waddling penis with eyes, and goes into Jonesy’s head. And now it’s British. Sure, movie, why not.

Meanwhile Pete gets killed by another one of these worms out in the woods. Two different characters come up with the nickname “shit weasels” independently, probably because no one knows what the fuck a weasel looks like. These things literally could not be less weasel like if they tried. Still, it gets one of the great points of horror: give your monster a ridiculous name. It’s why the creature in Alien is still known as the Vagina-Face Dong-Head.

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“Wait, what?”

The military shows up, led by Colonel Curtis (Morgan Freeman), and Owen (Tom Sizemore). They’re going to quarantine everyone and kill them to keep the infection from spreading. Henry, now captured by the military, convinces Owen to get him out to stop Jonesy, who is going to poison the reservoir. Imagine a Bond movie written by a kid who just learned all the verses to that song “Diarrhea,” and you see what you’re dealing with.

Henry convinces Owen to swing by Derry and pick up Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), who is now dying of leukemia. Henry also realizes that Duddits has been warning them about this since they were kids, but no one could understand him because of his speech impediment. It’s as silly as it sounds. Then they head over to the reservoir. Owen and Curtis get into a fight, and despite Owen having a gun and Curtis having a helicopter, it’s a tie, and they both die.

The monster, calling itself “Mr. Gray” jumps out of Jonesy and fights Duddits, who turns into another kind of monster. They explode together and the movie abruptly ends so we don’t think too much about what happened.

Life-Changing Subtext: The kids in the special class are actually just waiting for an excuse to turn you into the X-Men.

Defining Quote: Beaver: “I’ve seen a fuckeree turn into a fuckero.” He says this like these are words with meaning, and not something a dyslexic reads on the bathroom wall of a prison.

Standout Performance: In a sane movie, a normal movie, Morgan Freeman plays the good guy and Tom Sizemore plays the bad guy. This is an immutable law of the universe. Yet Dreamcatcher gives us a big old middle finger to that, as though to show it will flout every rule, it perversely casts them in the opposite roles. I think this is why both died, as though the universe was sorting it all out for them.

What’s Wrong: King’s fingerprints are all over this thing. There’s the Maine locales, the magical kid with Down Syndrome, gratuitous psychic powers, and a made up patois for the main characters to speak. It might have worked better on the page. Hell, it probably did. Or, this could be King falling into all his laziest cliches, slapping together some Frankenstein monster out of his other work without realizing that “shit weasel” is not going to have the staying power of, say, Pennywise.

This is a minor point here, but I have no earthly idea of what this monster’s lifecycle is. They’re shown hatching from people — anally — but they’re also shown laying eggs. Then there’s the weird red fungus that grows on everything? I need to stop thinking about this or I’ll start losing IQ points.

Flash of Competence: There’s something to be said for a movie that feels like it’s in a contest with itself to consistently top whatever madness you just saw onscreen. Crazy is many things, but boring isn’t one of them.

Best Scenes: Everything from the moment the hiker gets back to Beaver’s death is gold. For one thing, the guy is burping and farting up a storm, and it’s hilarious. Why? Because people farting is funny. It’s not highbrow humor, but it’s tough to make killer farts scary. Imagine if you took a legitimate horror classic. The Thing, for example. Say the one way to tell if someone was The Thing was if he started floating air biscuits left and right? Try it. Next time you watch a horror movie, add some fart sounds of your own.

Anyway, after the guy shits out the razor lamprey thing into the toilet, Beaver traps it by sitting on the lid. Jonesy runs out to get friction tape to trap the thing in there. In trying to get out, the monster makes Beaver spill his container of toothpicks, which is treated with the same breathless gravity of someone dropping one of the balls of poison in The Rock. Beaver, unable to function without a sliver of wood in his mouth, leans over to get the one toothpick not sitting in blood, and the whole thing is shot and scored like a character desperately reaching for a gun while an amorous komodo dragon drags him into its den.

Transcendent Moment: In the very end, when Duddits waddles in to do battle with Mr. Gray, it looks pretty grim. After all, Duddits is a severely mentally handicapped man frail from late-stage leukemia, and Mr. Gray is a giant penis with a vaginadentata for a face and a tail that looks like what a scorpion would draw on his Trapper Keeper. Duddits gets stabbed and then becomes a different monster. So… was he never a child? We met his mother. Was she an alien too? What about the leukemia? Why pretend to be dying of cancer? Why pretend to be mentally challenged? Was he just trying to make things more difficult? What kind of asshole is he?

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Sorry. “Masshole.”

Dreamcatcher has gained a justifiable reputation as being a work of delirious insanity that somehow made it through the studio system. Though I was disappointed at the time, hoping for that horror classic that never materialized, in some ways this oddity is even better.

 

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Lifetime Theater: Beautiful & Twisted

Television and movies have gone a strange and counterintuitive inversion over the past twenty years. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, movies were home to the extreme edges of human behavior, from graphic violence to inventive sex. People even said “fuck” more than once, and in the context of human reproduction (and recreation)! TV was the comforting home of family values, of chaste couples sleeping in separate beds, of nothing more violent than gunfire that couldn’t hit anything, of a place where “darn” was a four-letter word.

Then the MPAA happened. These guardians of moral purity, in their finite wisdom, decided to inform their own bizarre morality — a cross between a medieval monk’s code of behavior, and Peter MacNicol’s character in Addams Family Values — upon the world at large. Blood, but not the act of murder, could get you an R rating, as could showing breasts, saying “fuck” more than once (or only once, if it referred to the act of fucking, a.k.a. how humans happen), let alone showing people having and enjoying sex.

Weird corners of their morality poisoned many a movie. It’s common knowledge that a woman shown enjoying sex will net a worse rating than a man doing the same. Bloodless murders are preferable to the ratings board for some reason, as if the horrible consequences of violent action somehow make it more palatable. The scolds had taken over.

And yet, none of this would be a problem, had not the studios realized the most important thing: PG-13 movies make significantly more than R-rated movies. Just like that, the R rating, let alone the NC-17, became something to flee from, like a clown with an erection. Now this bizarre morality would rule what happened in movies, ensconcing a truly strange moral code — that a woman enjoying oral sex, or someone making with the salty talk, was more offensive than hundreds of people being killed in a consequence-free environment.

This is when the free market had our backs. As movies decided to exist in a world as imagined by the Mayor in season three of Buffy, TV decided that it was game on. You can no longer even sell a show to a premium cable network without sex in it, the stranger the better. Cable happily shows women, and gay guys, bisexuals, and even the occasional straight dude, that it’s okay to go to Pound Town with someone you love. Or even someone you just think is kinda hot. They’ll spill buckets of gore and profanity at the drop of a hat. While this can veer into the puerile, it’s also no coincidence that TV is not only better than movies, it’s not even a debate.

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Exhibit A-N

This brings me to this week’s Lifetime Theater, Beautiful & Twisted. It is emphatically not better than the movies, but it sure does have a weird attitude toward censorship. The villain of the piece, the sociopathic gold-digger Narcy (Paz Vega) starts the film as a stripper. Sorry, “dancer.” While Lifetime isn’t going to show an actual strip club, it doesn’t quite go for one of those places that only exist on TV where men go to watch women dance listlessly in bathing suits. Narcy’s costume is a little more complex, looking a bit like she should be one of Oliver Reed’s henchmen in Gor. Some of the dancing is a bit more risque than I expected coming from Lifetime, too. Literally the only reason I could think they would do this would be to get what they imagine is their standard viewer to hate or be suspicious of Narcy right off the bat. Or to get guys like me to stare at half-naked Paz Vega for a little while.

In addition, there are a couple scenes of nudity here. In both cases — nipples and butt crack — they’re blurred out like this is an episode of Survivor and she lost half her suit in an immunity challenge. (And now I’m hearing Probst hollering, “You’ve gotta pick it up, Narcy!”) There are several curses as well, two “bullshit”s and a “fuck” and in all three cases, the soundtrack abruptly mutes. Breaking Bad pulled a similar trick when they said “fuck” (on two different occasions, I think), and I believe the justification was that a softer word would have felt dishonest, and it could be restored on streaming and DVD, which is how most people watch it anyway. No one is buying this thing on DVD, so I have zero idea what’s going on here.

The movie is based on the true case of Ben Novack, Jr. (Rob Lowe, in an unfortunately subdued performance), a hotel heir in Florida, who married the aforementioned stripper and got his ass murdered. It takes a little while to get there. At first, Novack is portrayed as a big kid, obsessed with Batman to the point that I think it’s a little extreme, and on the hunt for his Catwoman, a role Narcy happily plays. While Novack’s mother Bernice (Candice Bergen) doesn’t like Narcy, this can easily be dismissed as class condescension or a little light racism.

The relationship is initially depicted as a class-busting romance. Novack charms Narcy’s daughter May, and their relationship is the one thing the movie treats with near reverence. According to the film, Novack, even in the depths of his drug abuse, doted on the girl in a decidedly non-creepy (with stepfathers, sadly, it has to be said) way. Even Bernice thawed when it came to May. Narcy was the only black sheep.

So when the abuse comes into play, it seems to out of nowhere. Narcy splits Novack’s head open with a billiard ball, and everyone is like, “Oh, she’s crazy again? You gotta get out of there.” And I’m wondering if I missed something. Things rapidly spiral out of control as Narcy pretty much goes straight Chaotic Evil. When she discovers Bernice is Novack’s heir, she has her killed in an unsettlingly gory scene. The same fate awaits Novack himself, and this is the kind of violence you would never see on the big screen. Nope, it’s only available on basic cable these days. The gore effects are top notch, mixing digital for the acts of violence, then makeup for the aftermath, for an effective combination.

Narcy really goes off the deep end when she learns that Novack’s money is going to May. While attacking her own daughter with a crowbar, she utters the immortal line, “You messed with the wrong bitch, bitch!” I wish I could have seen the screenwriter push his chair back from the computer and nod smugly to himself, content with a job well done. May runs to the cops and manages to put together some evidence for them, leading to Narcy’s arrest.

So what did we learn this week? “Don’t marry strippers” seems like me being needlessly judgmental. “Don’t marry sociopaths” sounds too difficult. How are you supposed to know? That stuff can sneak right up on you. Here we go: Don’t marry a woman who reminds you of a comic book villain, even a relatively harmless one like Catwoman.

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Now Fear This: Doomsday

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It’s so much more insane than this poster makes it look.

One of the easiest, and consequently hackiest, ways to pitch a show, book, or movie is the simple formula X meets Y. There’s a whole universe of content out there, and while this isn’t a good way to get across all of the idiosyncrasies that explain why you happen to like this particular incarnation, but it can give you the broad strokes. It’s a bit like the “it tastes like chicken” of the movie or TV world. Crank could be “Speed meets D.O.A.” while Outlander is “Beowulf meets Predator.”

This is useful shorthand only because we, to a greater or lesser extent, share the same pop culture vocabulary. While nearly everyone will understand what you mean if you pitch “Star Wars meets Sophie’s Choice” (although no one will understand why), it’s when you start getting into slightly more obscure movies that you can determine someone’s pop culture pedigree. I know I’ve met a true sibling on the winding road when they casually throw out references to Big Trouble in Little China, Joe Versus the Volcano, or Streets of Fire. It becomes that much more exhilarating when a filmmaker you already admire proves to have the same geeky reverence for the same trash culture you do. Watching Neil Marshall’s Doomsday turned my fandom for the man into something either endearing or creepy, because now I want to hang out with him and be pals.

“Derivative” is often used as an insult, and rightly so. It’s always because something is derivative of exactly one thing. There’s an old saying: Steal from one person and it’s plagiarism; steal from lots of people and it’s research. The same is true for derivation in the arts. If you remake just one movie (without explicitly declaring it a remake), you’re derivative in a bad way. If you decide to remake every movie from the ‘80s at once without first bothering to see if they fit together or even if you should stop mixing your medication, you get Doomsday.

The movie lurches between genres like a drunk desperately trying to get to the bathroom. It starts out as a relatively normal super-plague disaster movie, before morphing into Escape from New York with a dash of The Warriors, then into Excalibur, before wrapping up with a straight homage to The Road Warrior. Marshall just decided to gather up all his favorite movies from the ‘80s and graft them to one another, even naming minor characters after the greatest directors of that time, a practice he borrowed from John Carpenter (who gets one of these shout-outs).

A plague called the Reaper Virus breaks out in near future Scotland, killing boatloads of people. The area is quickly walled off, which has been the solution for Scotland for literally two thousand years. The quarantine remains in place for twenty years, and presumably, everyone north of the wall dies of acute face-rot. When the Reaper Virus makes an unexpected return to London, the government reveals that satellites have seen survivors. If there are survivors, there must be a cure.

They send in their version of Snake Plissken, the one-eyed badass Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) and a team of soldiers and scientists who should be very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Neil Marshall movie. This group quickly learns that the survivors have turned into a flashy cannibal gang that mixes showmanship with brutality and seems to have forgotten that Scotland is, by and large, long sleeves weather. Sinclair and her dwindling team (including her ridiculously awesome second in command Norton) fight their way through this gang only to run into the other source of power in the north.

This group is led by Malcolm McDowell from an honest-to-god medieval castle (though in a nice nod to what these are used for now, there’s still a sign denoting the Gift Shop visible in one shot), and they are living as though it were still the Middle Ages. McDowell’s character is the scientist the people back home believe will develop the cure, but he has some bad news: there is no cure, there is only people who are immune and people who are not. Really, their only option is to try to engineer a vaccine from the blood of one of the survivors.

Sinclair finishes her mission, but not before fucking over the man back home who was trying to use the plague as the means to seize power. Missing an eye unites her visually with Snake (and where was the first snake found but in Eden), but it’s this act that places her alongside him. She’s more noble than he ever was, as he fucks the world simply because they tried to use him. Sinclair is on the side of the angels, no matter how brutal her methods might be.

Doomsday is pretty much required viewing for anyone who came of age in the ‘80s. I’ve remarked many times that it’s the last truly experimental phase in the movie industry. The fact that much of this experimentation was confined to genre films sadly guarantees that it lacks the respect of the hallowed ‘70s. Marginalizing genre entertainment is nothing new, but it does disappoint me whenever I see it. There’s also the simple fact that I view this time period through rose-colored glasses. These are the films that formed my own aesthetic, readily becoming more apparent as more of my own books come out.

I regard this as Marshall’s weakest film, though it’s also his most fun. There’s an intoxicating aura of friendliness to it all. Marshall loves all the movies that form the patchwork quilt he’s weaving, and he wants you to love them as much as he does. He’s not being derivative because he lacks creativity — that would be literally the dumbest thing to say about a man as joyfully mad as Marshall — but because he wants to make the movie he saw in his mind when he was a child. When we play with our action figures, we gleefully mix characters, vehicles, and monsters from different sources. Want to have Han Solo, Snake Eyes, and Bumblebee team up to take down a dinosaur? Who the hell wouldn’t?

Pop culture can be great, delirious fun, especially when it’s cross pollinated. Disney is making all the money ever as they’re figuring it out with the Marvel Universe. Marshall did something like that, far more quietly, and in the darker, odder corners of genre.

 

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Tread Perilously — Miami Vice: Missing Hours

tpmTread Perilously returns with Erik and Justin in “Assignment: Miami.” For four weeks, the duo will take on pastels, neon rods and the worst Miami Vice can throw at them. In week one, they face Missing Hours, notable as many fans’ pick as the worst episode of the show.

Officer Big Booty Trudy (as she’s called on her desk placard) appears to have been abducted by aliens while investigating the death of a man who jumped through a shop window. Crocket and Tubbs visit James Brown, who also appears in Trudy’s hallucination while visiting a houseboat. Chris Rock plays a file clerk with an interest in UFOlogy and Edward James Olmos grumbles.

Erik and Justin discuss the close encounters scale, the film Death Drug and the intoxicating effect of the episode. We also learn Justin’s real feelings on Michael Mann.

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Yakmala: Exterminator City

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See those people in the corner? Not in the movie.

Exist in the wilderness of terrible cinema for long enough, and you will eventually encounter things like this week’s entry. It is, only in the loosest sense of the term, a film. Sure, it claims to be a movie while hitting on some bored woman at a cocktail party, studiously ignoring her gazelle-like body language, but it’s just talking itself up. Exterminator City is the Patrick Bateman of movies, if Patrick Bateman’s idea of a disguise was a blood-splattered clown costume and a necklace of baby heads.

Tagline: None

More Accurate Tagline: We’re kind of hoping you mix this up with Terminator.

Guilty Party: Writer, director, and producer Clive Cohen. I don’t know anything about this guy, but if I had to guess, he spent most of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s masturbating  and watching Liquid Television. He only ever made one movie, so I guess the system kind of works, but how he made this one is beyond me. If you told me this was cobbled together from hostage videos seized from a cult compound after a bloody raid, I’d believe it.

Synopsis: Look, this thing is basically two scenes, over and over, for ninety minutes. Watching it is a bit like trying to read a Chinese newspaper, only you don’t read Chinese, someone keeps screaming dad jokes at you with a bullhorn, and you’ve been shot in the head six times.

It’s 2027 in the possibly futuristic Atro City, a dystopia where shirts and wide shots have not been invented yet. It’s always raining because Cohen accidentally watched Blade Runner and gave himself the most baffling orgasm of his existence. Tiny flying cars zip past cardboard tenement slums in perpetual night. Meanwhile, every interior shot is a brightly-lit home in the sunny San Fernando Valley. In this future, only two kinds of creatures exist: robots, and aging starlets whose plastic surgery runs the gamut from floatation device to nightmarish. Don’t ask me how any breeding happens. And really don’t ask Cohen, because he’ll bust out a 300 page comic he drew just to answer that question.

A cowboy cop and a psychologist are on the trail of an ex-exterminator and current serial killer who is systematically murdering women. The cop, psychologist, and exterminator are all robots. Everyone who isn’t a screaming victim is a robot. If Clive Cohen went in to test for a mental illness, he’d get diagnosed with “Yes.”

The two scenes are: the exterminator is wandering through a house stalking a woman who was briefly famous in 1988 for getting topless in a movie about breasts in Miami, or the two robots are muttering at each other about the crime. With the amount of practice Cohen has shooting these, you’d think one would be good. You would be wrong.

Eventually, the cop busts the criminal, but then Satan gives him the choice to be reincarnated as anyone he wants. Yes, this happens. I didn’t just have a stoke and start typing letters at random, although I kind of wish that were the case. In what Cohen assumes to be irony, the exterminator comes back as the cop. Cohen is familiar with O. Henry, only because he saw the name and assumed he was a porn star.

Life-Changing Subtext: Robots have souls but women don’t.

Defining Quote: “Just what the world needs, a schizophrenic toaster.” Should have been the movie’s tagline.

Standout Performance: Look, the main characters are all either puppets, or whatever former porn star Cohen could blackmail for an hour of shooting at her place. I still have no idea what any character names were, or even if they were supposed to have names. Although, helpfully, the credits finish up with the websites of all the actresses involved. You know, in case you weren’t feeling slimy enough already. Their IMDB pages read like Madlibs completed by a pornographic chat bot trying to get you to open the pod bay doors.

What’s Wrong: About 95% of the dialogue is between the two lead robots, both of whom speak in raspy whispers and are wrestling with the kind of Aussie accents that want to run off into the desert and die for the Humungus. Trying to understand any individual line would take a hostage negotiator, Marlee Matlin’s West Wing interpreter, a Navajo codetalker, and a hammer to pulverize your frontal lobe.

Flash of Competence: Nope. Just nope.

Best Scenes: Just a quick note here. I should never, ever, be watching a movie and wonder if I’m in the middle of a car chase.

Our hero, this cop robot, figures out that all the victims have had priors, which helps him determine the killer’s weird “exterminator” motivation or something. I’m not totally sure here, because the every line out of his mouth sounds like a lifelong smoker gargling their final confession to a priest who only speaks Esperanto. The point is, break in the case, right? Well, it took him thirty goddamn victims to figure this out. This is less police work and more thinning the herd.

A couple fight scenes liven up the premises, but since Cohen can’t show the robots in full at any point, it’s mostly just closeups of very delicate boops onto metallic skull faces. It looks like a coffee maker trying to sweetly fist a toaster oven. You know, on their anniversary or something.

Transcendent Moment: There is, actually, a third kind of scene that happens in this movie. It still makes very little sense. The exterminator robot has periodic visions of hell, and wouldn’t you know it? He has a little company. When Cohen thought of this character, he was in breathless awe of his own genius. He couldn’t quite believe one man could be so ball-shatteringly incredible to come up with three whole kinds of scenes for a movie. And this character, well, this was gonna blow some minds. This shit was subversive, a real indictment that other filmmakers were afraid to make.

Yeah, you probably already guessed, but I’ll say it. Hell features Devil Hitler. This whole goddamn movie exists entirely in the world posited by the burlesque shows in Flashdance.

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So, like this, but with a Hitler ‘stache. And it’s a puppet. And everything is terrible and I want to die.

Exterminator City should never be watched. Ever. This is why the cylons destroyed us. This is why Johnny Five’s eyes turn red and he starts smoking everything with his military laser. After sitting through all ninety minutes of it, I see where they’re coming from.

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