Monday, 30 November 2009
And if you dig that, check out the Collins Crime Club logo on the title page:
Nice! And meanwhile, on the back...
Pity the poor girl whose fella bought her a wedding ring off the back of a crime paperback for £3.10.
Pity also a book with a cast list like this to deal with:
I should also mention that pretty much every time I open a book like this with an old fashioned list of chapters, I feel an uncontrollable urge to start recording a concept album with matching song titles - surely I can't be the only one?
Sunday, 29 November 2009
I absolutely love the use of the Norman Mailer quote, in which he doesn't seem to be making any reference to the book at all.
"She rolls her head, sticks her tongue in my mouth like mad." Man, you can forget yr "the smell of roasted almonds always reminded me of unrequited love" bullshit - THAT'S some fucking writing!
Actually, from what I've read so far, 'The Knife' is genuinely pretty great - a masterclass in clipped, hardboiled prose with a Sam Fuller-esque b-movie approach to social realism. Here's the opening:
Sunday, 22 November 2009
I bought this in Greenwich market today. Wouldn't you..?
It has a beautiful hand-painted (??!!) title page:
And the best contents page ever:
"Ground spider attains occult power; Becomes too ambitious, Killed" absolutely made my day. Can't wait to read some of these.
Oh, and in case you were wondering re: the cover;
I'll leave you with Eisaburo Kusano's dedication;
Amen to that.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Featuring eerie, abstract visual effects, a cast rendered distantly familiar by bit parts in Dr Who, music and sound effects by the Radiophonic Workshop, and even a plotline directly concerned with the deterioration of analogue recording media and the search for a digital replacement, it was somewhat inevitable that Nigel Kneale’s 1972 teleplay “The Stone Tape” should emerge as a key text of Britain’s current ‘hauntology’ / analogue era nostalgia movement. (Ok, so I suppose I can’t actually prove its position as such, but c’mon, if the Ghost Box contingent haven’t regularly thrilled to a bootleg VHS of this one on a Sunday evening, I’ll eat my hat.)
Kneale should of course need no introduction as one of the most inventive and uncompromising writers to ever work in television, the man behind “The Year of the Sex Olympics” (1968), and the creator of Professor Bernard Quatermass, whose appearances in Kneale-penned BBC TV serials during the ‘50s, and in particular the hugely influential “Quatermass and the Pit” (1958), far outshone his adventures in Hammer’s series of film adaptations (in my opinion at least).
Like “Quatermass and the Pit”, “The Stone Tape” posits a group of characters who find themselves setting out to investigate a rumour-shrouded haunted site through the ruthless application of scientific method. In this case, it’s a team of researchers working for a consumer electronics firm who have been relocated to the until-recently-derelict Taskerlands house, only to find that the cavernous basement room they’ve earmarked for a computer storage facility is already occupied by a screaming spectre. And, also like “Quatermass..”, the story’s masterstroke lays in the way that, rather than diminishing and defanging the supernatural by dragging it into the light of reason, the results of the team’s investigations simply serve to draw us deeper inside the mystery, exposing new ideas that eventually prove weirder and more threatening than an old fashioned ghost story could ever be.
Conveniently, the researchers, led by loud and hard-headed Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), have been charged with trying to develop a new digital recording medium to help the British electronics industry compete with the Japanese (“give me Wagner’s Ring Cycle encoded onto a ball baring with instant playback”, Peter demands of his colleagues, to hoots of derision and disbelief that seem wonderfully quaint from a 2009 perspective). So when they find themselves confronted with a room that regularly manifests disembodied screams and a hanging phantom lady, the solution is as obvious as it is ingenious: the walls of the room itself are storing information from the past, and projecting it directly into the minds of visitors at irregular intervals… thus potentially making the room the breakthrough the team is looking for!
Initially “The Stone Tape” lays on the haunted house mythology pretty thick, often with direct reference to Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (a film whose effective, no nonsense style is very much reflected here in both the writing and direction). So we have half-remembered tales of unsuccessful exorcisms, and of a local boy who went insane after being locked in the room overnight, a stairway leading to nowhere and a Victorian servant girl who hanged herself from the top of it. Director Peter Sasdy certainly had a pedigree in the world of horror, having helmed “Taste The Blood of Dracula” and “Hands of the Ripper” for Hammer in the preceding years, but what’s immediately notable here is that the jump-scares and gothic imagery one might expect of a ghost story are almost completely excised in favour of a more subtly malign atmosphere that reflects our characters’ scientific background and, in the case of Peter and psychic sensitive computer programmer Jill (Jane Asher), their respective moral failings and nervous disposition too. As such, The Stone Tape” is realized with a cold and queasy realist inversion of the gothic aesthetic that would find it’s natural home a decade later in David Cronenberg’s early films.
Kneale’s writing is at its absolute best here too, and in fact “The Stone Tape” is as successful as a human drama as it is as an excursion into high concept weirdness. Peter’s character – a mendacious, bullying egotist with a proto-Thatcherite drive to success that sees him grasp the possibilities of his haunting theory with an Ahab-like determination, then drop it like a hot potato as soon as his professionalism is called into question – is oddly fascinating, especially as every aspect of his situation, including his opportunistic affair with the fragile and confused Jill, is sketched out in detail for us. As a sub-plot develops involving Peter’s battle for funding with a rival research team led by an oaf trying to perfect an experimental washing machine (perhaps here Kneale is making a crafty reference to the BBC’s tendency to sideline more forward-thinking projects in favour of low-brow schedule-fillers?), one begins to realize that “The Stone Tape” would be a pretty involving tale with plenty to say about British culture, even without the supernatural elements.
For all its modernism though, “The Stone Tape” still manages to hold true to the gothic formula, essentially boiling things down to a frightened and hyper-sensitive young woman alone amid the ghostly ruins, as the repressive and claustrophobic nature of her situation and the venal and manipulative nature of her companions if given physical form via the supernatural – as per usual. Jane Asher (who you may recall tackled similar territory in Corman’s “Masque of the Red Death”) is superb in the role of Jill – a stricken gothic heroine breaking out from under the skin of an educated and level-headed modern woman.
Also adding a huge amount to “The Stone Tape”s singularly creepy totality are the audio and visual effects, with the spooky-at-the-best-of-times BBC Radiophonic Workshop turning in one of their all-time best unhinged sound designs, full of baleful, echo-laden incidental passages and distorted EVP ghost-chatter that could have been pulled straight off an Eric Zann or Mount Vernon Arts Lab release. The visuals, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, are the perfect match – despite the obvious budgetary constraints, the designers certainly didn’t hesitate to throw in as much beautiful, fluorescent ectoplasmic splurge as they could muster, with split second glimpses of unspeakable, half-formed things, disorientating UV lighting and surreal super-impositions all serving to create a truly startling conclusion.
Prior to the play’s final ten minutes though, it should be noted that the supernatural elements are masterfully underplayed, with the trad ghost story tropes setting us up for shocks and surprises that never really come, and that are all the more unsettling for their absence. In true cosmic horror fashion, even the story’s final, mind-bending conclusions are merely hinted at rather than fully spelled out, left to sink in slowly over preceding hours/days as the full scale of the play’s central concept becomes clear.
When, after a frenzied night spent trying to ‘control’ appearances of the apparition using frequency generators and UV lights, the phenomena seems to disappear completely, the team conclude that they must have accidentally ‘wiped the tape’, and, slightly embarrassed, move back to their original work. It is only Jill who realises that the others are still stuck in an analogue mindset. Rather than a ‘tape’, the stones of the room function as a three dimensional matrix, and as the most recent layers are removed, older voices – characterized by the room’s past victims as “the others” – will begin to emerge, more deteriorated and more malign the further back you go; and how far back CAN you go? – to the laying of foundations in Saxon times, or to the formation of the stones themselves, before the dawn of the earth…?
The answers are left hanging, just like the Victorian servant girl who previously tapped into the voices from the stone, as Kneale demonstrates powerfully the idea that when you try to throw science at a mystery, the mystery is just as liable to magnify and overtake you as it is to recede. Just ask the guys working on the Large Hadron Collider, and file “The Stone Tape” as essential viewing for anyone with an interest in intelligent approaches to science fiction, paranormal phenomena or cosmic horror, or anyone who simply wants to drink in the analogue ghosts of some authentic, high-grade British weirdness.
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
You’d better believe I was pretty stoked when I found ‘The Rollerblade Seven’ in a pile of videos on sale outside a second hand furniture shop on my walk to work one day.
For those familiar with this movie and its cultural context, I realise that’s a line about on a par with “I was curious as the heavy-breathing, bandaged man approached me with the gardening shears”, but for the rest of us, some background is probably in order here.
I’ve been fascinated by Donald Jackson and his dedication to the noble cause of making post-apocalyptic rollerskating nun movies ever since I read Keith’s memorable review of his pioneering ‘Roller Blade’(1986) over at Teleport City.
Done reading that? Good. Sounds GREAT doesn’t it? Sadly, a quick look at IMDB over breakfast (I know, I know – it was a quiet week) reveals that ‘..Seven’ is actually Jackson’s fourth rollerblade movie, dating from 1991, making it a suspiciously late entry in the canon of ‘80s post-apocalypse movies. Not that, as it transpires, Jackson’s films really have much to do with that canon, or indeed any other kind of cultural phenomena that exist in what we presumptuously call ‘the wider world’.
If IMDB user comments may be taken as any kind of yardstick, audience reaction to ‘The Roller Blade Seven’ has not been kind.
“A Real Brain Melter,” says Dom from Leicester, awarding the film a 1/10 rating:
“This is one of the hardest to watch films ever, There are scenes with silence that seems to last hours before somebody comes out with the next badly written, badly acted line. There are action sequences that keep repeating - and we're not talking the quickfire 1-2-3 action repeat on a particularly good kick that was made popular by eastern directors, we're talking many, many repeats of long, bad fight sequences. Any kind of plot or vision is lost within the confusing continuity, the only thing thats keeps this film in the videoplayer (apart from the bet from a friend that i couldn't watch it all the way through without begging for it to be turned off and disposed off safely so it may harm no-one else) is the fact that although painful, this film is unintentionally hilarious.”
“Second (or possibly third) worst movie EVER MADE!!”, comments somebody called ‘Infofreak’:
“About 15 minutes into 'The Roller Blade Seven' I nearly gave up, but decided (masochist that I am!) to go all the way, baby! Because this is one movie you just gotta see ONCE, if only as a yardstick of sheer crapness. This is without doubt one of the worst movies I've ever seen in my life. Now maybe you're thinking "goodie! I'm in for some 1990s version of 'Plan Nine From Outer Space', or 'The Incredibly Strange Creatures...' hilarious laugh-a-minute good times". NO!! When I say BAD I mean beyond entertainment. This movie is so awful in every way imaginable, and absolutely torturous to sit through, that you won't be able to think of ANY reason to continue watching it until the end.”
‘Mds131313’ ups the ante, reflecting:
“This has to be the greatest practical joke ever. I'm amazed that all the other actors kept a straight face. […] If by some chance they weren't kidding and they legitimately tried to make a real movie then I feel sorry for everyone involved in the creation. I've had quite a love affair with cheesy movies, but this movie is so bad I can hardly watch it. They repeat pointless "special effects" so many times that it's obvious they were just trying to cover up the fact that they only shot 30 minutes of footage. If I were forced to watch this movie on repeat I would bludgeon myself unconscious with my own hands after about one and a half times through.”
‘Mystery Biscuit’ meanwhile weighs in with:
“I watched this film with a group of Nazis, a French Archaeologist and my ex-girlfriend on a small island in the Mediterranean.
When the tape was started, myself and my girlfriend were tied to a wooden stake at the far end of this cave like area. I told her to close her eyes and no matter what happened not to open them. The Nazi's and the archaeologist didn't close their eyes and after a few seconds started screaming. The Nazi's faces melted and the archaeologist's head exploded.
After a few seconds the video tape popped out of the VCR and landed back in it's box and the top snapped shut. Myself and my girlfriend were left unharmed.
Consequent to this experience, the video cassette was put in a wooden crate and stored in a huge warehouse of identical wooden crates, never to be see again.”
Such a card, that ‘Mystery Biscuit’.
Now the above comments didn’t really phase that much, simply because it is inevitable that any moderately strange low budget movie will attract its fair share of this sort of scorn (although it must be said that even by those standards, the sheer number of “Worst Film Ever!!!”s racked up by ‘Roller Blade Seven’ is remarkable). As you scroll down the page, it is equally inevitable that these entries will be tempered by a smaller number of 10/10 reviews by trash true believers, proclaiming the movie to be a wonderful/hilarious/awesome masterpiece of action-packed enjoyment, and denouncing the 1/10ers as schmucks who don’t get it.
And sure enough, ‘Roller Blade Seven’ has its supporters. And it’s when I read their comments that I really began to get frightened.
First we find somebody going by the name ‘fellinijunky’, who says:
“This is really a Rock n' Roll Great Film! It is like Fellini on Acid and I love Fellini!
I mean, there are so many twists and turns in this film, that it really keeps you guessing. This film is really different than any other action-adventure film I have ever seen, if you can call it an action-adventure. Yeah, it has martial arts and swordplay but this film is really not about that. This film is like somebody went out there, did what ever they wanted to do, and put it on film.
As an Art School Geek, this is the kind of film I would like to make if I had the money.
This film really has created a new and better genera of film-making and "It Rocks!"”
Moving on, Cammie Kim says:
“First of all, I am grad film student at U.S.C. In one of my classes we went through the three films associated with the project, THE ROLLER BLADE SEVEN, RETURN OF THE ROLLER BLADE SEVEN, and LEGEND OF THE ROLLER BLADE SEVEN, frame by frame. So, I believe I know these films as well as anyone, expect maybe the filmmaker, could know them. And, 'Yes,' I have gone to both Scott Shaw's and Donald G. Jackson's websites and have read what they have had to say about these films. What I have to say is that they accomplished exactly what they set out to do; to make a completely nontraditional, art based, film.
Now, I am not saying this is the greatest film every. What I am saying, however, is that the filmmakers used every element at their disposable to, as they put it, 'Push the envelope,' of film-making.”
Right. By this stage, it is safe to say that I have NO idea what to expect from ‘Roller Blade Seven’. Trying to reconcile these two perspectives, I can only believe I’m about to experience something very special indeed. Whether that’s ‘special’ in the sense that it needs its food cut up for it, only time will tell.
It’s clear that Donald Jackson’s films were somewhat, uh, ‘wacky’ from the word go. But by the time he got around to this one, dude was off on some other shit entirely. You see, In between churning out self-financed ‘Roller Blade’ sequels, spin-offs from his other sort-of success “Hell Comes To Frogtown” and other must-see oddities like “Mimes: Silent but Deadly” and “I Like To Hurt People”, Jackson gradually came under the influence of a guy named Scott Shaw.
Shaw initially began to work on Jackson’s films as a general collaborator/ideas man, but his contributions were gradually pushed to the fore, so that by the time ‘Roller Blade Seven’ rolls around, he has become the film’s star (rocking a distinctive blonde mullet, shades, trenchcoat and army boots combo), co-director and central conceptualist. Apparently what little dialogue the film contains is also lifted directly from some books he wrote (and there is no shortage of those).
You see, as well as being a martial artist, actor, stuntman, composer, author and self-publicist extraordinaire, Scott Shaw is also a deeply mystical sort of dude, a follower of ‘spiritual paths’, and a self-professed zen master. The credits to ‘Roller Blade Seven’ make copious reference to something called the “Masters of Light Institute”, which led me to suppose he might be a full-blown cult leader, but his current website makes no mention of such an organisation, so we’ll let it slide.
More pertinent to this review, Scott Shaw is also the sole inventor (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, you hear) of something called Zen Filmmaking. What is Zen Filmmaking, you ask? Well, in the words of the man himself:
“In Zen Filmmaking no scripts are used. There are no rules and no definitions. The spontaneous creative energy of the filmmaker is the only defining factor - this allows for a spiritually pure source of immediate inspiration to be the only guide in the filmmaking process.”
Yep, you got it. Zen Filmmaking. Further to the whole “making shit up as you go along” aspect of the zen method, this enlightening article by Shaw includes such other useful advice as “if the cops bust you for filming at a location, go film somewhere else”, and, staggeringly, “if your footage looks crap, use it anyway”.
Apparently, ‘The Roller Blade Seven’ was one of the first pure examples of this game-changing approach to the cinematic arts. Oh boy. Forewarned is forearmed, but it is still with a feeling of heavy apprehension that I press ‘play’ on ‘The Roller Blade Seven’.
My god, I don’t know what to tell you. I was stunned. Actually stunned. However weird and cheap and ludicrous and bad I was expecting ‘Roller Blade Seven’ to be, it beat me at every turn.
There is no way I can review ‘Roller Blade Seven’ in the conventional manner. It is simply beyond notions of good and bad, existing on another plain entirely. It is, as one of the reviews I quoted above sagely puts it, “beyond entertainment”.
It’s more like a dream. The kind of dream where you wake thinking “where the hell did all THAT come from?”, and feeling thoroughly unsatisfied. More specifically, it’s like a dream in which a guy with a late ‘80s camcorder decides to make his own fusion of Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Holy Mountain, utilising several out of work porn actresses and props found in the trash outside an abandoned skating rink.
When its detractors complained that the film has “no plot”, they weren’t exaggerating. There’s this… nun, I suppose, who is a psychic, apparently. She wears a robe and shades and a cardboard hat. A bad guy who lives inside "The Wheel Zone", whatever that is, sends some men kidnap her, and they march endlessly across a sunlit beach throughout the rest of the film. A man who looks like a cheap televangelist going on safari (Donald Jackson himself, I think) sits in a tent full of hanging smiley badges and talks a load of bollocks with Scott Shaw, who then sets out, presumably to go and get the nun, and after that… all vestige of sanity is lost. It’s a bit like watching Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasuredome on rollerskates. Only, y’know, not as good.
A succession of ridiculously garbed characters who are never introduced nor explained drift on and off the screen seemingly at random. Stuff happens, for no reason. Well, when I say ‘stuff’, I mean, people move from one side of the screen to the other, and sometimes they stop, and throw kung fu poses. Occasionally someone makes some ponderous pronouncement about “the Wheel Zone” and aside from that nobody really says anything much. A wide variety of terrible hippie music, like a mix CD you’d hear in an Amsterdam headshop, plays incessantly.
About halfway through, a woman turns up who seems to be some sort of protagonist. She wears an uncomfortably tight pink latex swimsuit. There are lots of shots of her ass. There’s a man with a bandaged face and a stovepipe hat who plays a banjo. His appearances are signalled by extremely loud banjo music. I think this is ‘humour’, of a sort. In the film’s only nod to post-apocalyptic traditions of yore, there’s a baseball bat wielding clown. Then there’s this man wearing swimshorts and kneepads and sitting on a sorta lifeguard chair in the middle of the desert, and at one point some kind of teddyboy shows up and starts talking to him about how he’s trying to find Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. I’m pretty sure that happens anyway – I may have passed out. And hey, look out everybody - here comes some sort of rollerblading minotaur beast! He can only wobble along slowly - looks like he’s having trouble staying upright. There are slow, stoned “fight” sequences wherein a variety of these strange characters are “defeated” by means of repeated footage of Scott Shaw swinging his sword around. Frank Stallone plays this grouchy military guy in a wheelchair - I'm not sure what he's all about. For about two minutes somewhere in the middle, there are boobs.
The film finishes up at an arbitrary point, when Donald Jackson performs a wedding ceremony in which Scott Shaw marries a woman who may be the pink latex girl, but may equally be somebody else entirely. They drive off from a desert beauty-spot carpark on Shaw’s Harley, and are pursued by some other people in a car. The people in the car shoot the happy couple (by pointing a gun out of the window and mouthing ‘bang’), and they lie dead at the side of the road. This whole sequence is repeated THREE TIMES, with seemingly identical footage and edits, as an epic southern rock song called ‘The Pride of the Yankee’ plays out in its extremely long entirety. The end.
Like I said earlier, there is nothing that can possibly be said as regards trying to pass critical judgement on this film. It’s just too much.
I can’t believe Karen Black is in it though! I mean, she’s been in proper movies – good ones even. I almost forgot to mention that here she plays a psychic who Scott Shaw goes to see at one point. They eat some mushrooms (which look like regular cooking mushrooms, rather than the psychotropic kind), and wonder about in the desert frenchkissing statues for a while. For her sake, I’ll imagine she must have been tripping already when Jackson and Shaw blundered in unexpectedly for a bit of Zen Filmmaking.
Subsequent to ‘The Roller Blade Seven’ and its two sequels, Donald Jackson directed over twenty more films in collaboration with Scott Shaw, including “Shotgun Boulevard”, “Ghost Taxi”, “Frogtown Warriors”, “Lingerie Kickboxer” and “Rollergator” (ROLLERGATOR!), prior to his untimely death from Leukaemia in 2003.
Since then, Scott Shaw has taken on the rights to Jackson’s ‘Frogtown’ and ‘Roller Blade’ series, and has furthered the art of Zen Filmmaking with a steady stream of films bearing titles like “Rock n Roll Cops 2: The Adventure Begins”, “Naked Avenger”, “Frogtown News”, “Blood on the Guitar”, “Hawk: Warrior of the Wheelzone” and “Samurai Johnny Frankenstein”, perhaps taking his ‘film whatever / use it’ philosophy to its natural conclusion with the release of self-explanatory ‘documentaries’ such as “Dinner & Drinks” and “A Ride With Linnea and Donald”.
It’s a strange and frightening world out there, and, like a Lovecraft protagonist spying a severed tentacle, the truly terrifying thing is that ‘Roller Blade Seven’ has only given me the merest glimpse of it.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Possessed of few immediate qualities beyond a basic, unassailable strangeness, 1988’s ‘Hell Island’ (US title ‘Slaughterhouse Rock’) is a movie that few people will find it in their hearts to love. It is after all a boring, confusing, aimless mess, lacking in any memorable imagery or directorial flair and featuring startlingly amateurish, cheap looking production values for a film distributed by a major studio in the late ‘80s.
But then, I probably don’t have to remind you that there are those of us out there who, when confronted by such a shambling, misbegotten runt of the cinematic litter, will have little choice but to give it a big hug and vow to take care of it forever. A little honest-to-god strangeness can go a long way in the formulaic world of ‘80s horror, and whilst it may crap out on just about every other level, boy oh boy does ‘Hell Island’ ever have some strangeness in store for you.
Well, ok, sure, it’s not THAT strange – I mean, it’s not like a lost Jodorowsky film or something - but we can definitely file it with that select group of fuzzy-headed obscurities whose failure to take heed of any known set of genre conventions renders them works of unique joy and puzzlement, ready to reveal their vague and inconsequential mysteries to anyone who dares stare hard enough into their eerie, pan-and-scan totality.
Happening upon a nest of unloved horror VHS in the basement of Music & Video Exchange in Greenwich, and wondering which of them might be worth a purchase, you can imagine my train of thought as I skim read the back of ‘Hell Island’ and clock the following;
* ”Inexplicably haunted by terrifying visions of a prison-like fortress..”
* ”A dream specialist persuades Alex to visit the island of Alcatraz..”
* ”..the imprisoned undead spirits of missing rock star Sammy Mitchell (Toni Basil) and her band..”
* “..under the spell of the prison’s sadistic Commandant..:”
* ”..a spree of murder and mutilation..”
* ”Music by Devo”
Yes! I know! Me too! Here is your shiny pound coin, Mr. Music & Video Exchange cashier. You can keep your third rate ’87 vintage slashers and vague, undistinguished exorcism flicks, and I KNOW there’s not actually a beserker in ‘Beserker’, but this one – this one’s coming home with me.
It’s safe to say there’s probably enough of us out there these days who want a slice of the hoo-hah outlined above to gain this movie SOME kind of low level cult veneration regardless of its actual quality, but back in ’88 you have to wonder how many cinema-goers even made it past the torturously drawn out opening sequence. Here we see a heavy-breathing, monstrous creature of some kind shambling his way slowly through a dank, rat infested sewer, interspersed with shots of a pair of disembodied hands trying to free themselves from some rusty manacles before, presumably, the monster arrives. This vague unpleasantness goes on and on, presumably to build ‘tension’, the way that classes on directing movies say you should. Only in this case, director Dimitri Logothetis demonstrates a mixture of sheer incompetence and lunatic inspiration that we will soon come to know and love by sticking this grim ordeal right at the start of the movie, with no context at all, causing impatient viewers the world over to exclaim “fuck this” and go an find something more rewarding to do, or so I can only imagine.
Those who wait it out will eventually get to see the hands of the monstrous whatever reach the struggling human hands and…. BOOM, it’s a all a dream! A horrible, horrifying nightmare suffered by poor Alex, who is going to be our protagonist today.
Alex is a sophomore student who shares a conveniently cardboard-walled house with three of his crazy loser chums. You can tell they’re crazy, because one of them wears shades and a big coat and shorts all the time, and rattles off crap jokes continuously, and because they’ve got one of those sorta Cadillac bonnet shaped things in their living room where the fireplace should be. We know that their pad is filthy, because girls who visit loudly tell them so, making cheap cracks about cobwebs and the like. Yep, they’re crazy, crazy guys alright.
But even crazy free spirits need their sleep, and it seems that Alex’s violent nightmares and increasingly irrational behaviour is starting to cause the chums a great deal of hassle. As they’re striding around on campus one day, they raise the issue with Alex, and one of them reads aloud from a newspaper story about a well-known rock band called, uh, Bodycount (sadly not Ice T’s crew) who were recently found dead on Alcatraz island, having apparently engaged in some kind of gory suicide pact after sneaking away from a guided tour. How exactly Alex’s friends connect this up with his scary dreams I have no idea but…. y’know, it’s just that kinda movie.
What kind of movie exactly? Well specifically, the kind of movie where dreadful, mumbling feckless teenage actors have to deliver dialogue exchanges like…
“Are you hungry?”
“Does an accordion player wear a ring on his pinky finger?”
“Of course not. Are you hungry?”
And you’ll still be scratching your head thinking about accordion players when the action cuts to a neon-lit burger bar / nightclub set-up, where we’re given immediately given another example of the sideways genius of writer/director Logothetis, as, rather than taking us straight from the establishing shot to footage of our characters chowing down, he decides to let his camera roam free for a while, cutting between different tables and giving us random snatches of conversation for a couple of minutes before settling down to the business at hand. Now Robert Altman could do a scene like this, Quentin Tarantino could do a scene like this, but with Logothetis at the controls with his awkward editing and ham-fisted wackiness, you’re simply left completely disorientated, wondering what the hell is going on.
And it’s this constant, low level “what the hell?” factor that proves to be ‘Hell Island’s saving grace. Surprisingly, this wasn’t even Logothetis’ first time out of the stalls on a feature film (he helmed frat-girl comedy Pretty Smart in ’87, apparently), but the mixture of naivety and enthusiasm he brings to both writing and directing pays off wonderfully, allowing the film to veer off into flat-out weirdness again and again where a more seasoned hack would simply have turned in pure blandness. In some ways, ‘Hell Island’ has a similar feel to it to all those oddball movies Herschell Gordon Lewis made where he tried to expand his range beyond smut/gore. You may be aware at all times that you’re watching the work of a lapsadaisical, incompetent freak, but the whole shebang carries with it a joyous sense of random, whimsical humanity, and you just NEVER know what’s coming next.
The storyline is all over the place. It’s like Logothetis had all those ideas floating about in his noggin – the one about the Animal House style student who’s having psychic nightmares, the one about the rock star who dabbles in the occult and comes back from the grave to fight a demon, the one about the satanic confederate general whose spirit is trapped under Alcatraz island by resourceful Native American medicine men – and he just thought, what the hell, I can throw all these together into one movie, it’ll be awesome! And I’ll get Devo to do the music too – those guys rule!
That the finished film ended up being far less than the sum of its sloppily thrown together parts must have served as a cruel lesson to the young director in the chasm between thought and expression.
So anyway, in brief: Alex’s nightmares begin to accelerate to the point where dream and reality start to collapse, and he begins to manifest actual telekinetic phenomena and the like. This attracts the attention of one of his professors, who as well as being an, ahem, hot babe in the parlance of our characters, is also an expert in experimental parapsychology, the occult and… well, you know. “This book will explain everything”, she exclaims, thunking down a huge, dusty sketchbook full of authentic witchdoctor doodling. Nice one.
The Professor decides that Alex’s night terrors must be emanating from Alcatraz island because… well, I dunno, look at the picture on the front of the video box - where else would they be coming from? She decides that Alex must go to Alcatraz to… well, again, I don’t know exactly - to face down his demons, or to exorcise the evil powers, or just to look around, or whatever. Alex doesn’t want to go, because he’s a useless, boring, obstinate git (did I fail to mention that?), but naturally we’re not going to let his grousing spoil the flow of our movie any more than it has already, so off everyone goes on a midnight mission across the bay in a rubber dinghy.
And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. I know it’s a cheap shot to pick on barely coherent horror movies for this sort of thing, but really: if you were making an illegal midnight trip to an abandoned prison island to possibly confront some ill-defined evil entity, would you REALLY insist that all your housemates came along with you? And all their girlfriends? And your sorta-possible-future girlfriend, who’s still trying to work out how she feels about you being such a useless, boring obstinate git?
I suppose stretching a point, you could say they all wanted to go along to help out their friend, except that a) none of them seem to like him much (see the whole ‘useless, boring, obstinate git’ thing), and b) several of those present loudly and persistently complain about how they want to go home. What’s going on? Did somebody herd them into the boat at gunpoint?
Anyway, Alcatraz. Apparently it is spooky and deserted, and has no security measures whatsoever, so you and your pals can pitch up in your boat at any hour of the day or night and just sorta wander around. Who knew? Disappointingly though, it seems that, aside from a few moody establishing shots, ‘Hell Island’ was not actually filmed on Alcatraz, and the rest of the movie is in fact realised via a series of poorly lit backlot ‘exteriors’ and really dull looking sets. Dragsville, man.
Alex’s brother (the most physically imposing of those present) swiftly gets himself possessed by the big evil whatever, and turns into some kind of super-strong vampire creature that proceeds to spent the rest of the running time picking off the others one by one in a thoroughly tedious manner. Because after all, this is a cheap ‘80s horror, right? That’s what happens.
Don’t fall asleep yet though, because – hey! – here’s Toni Basil! Who’s she again, you might well ask, giving me the opportunity to snort with derision and point you in the direction of, like, the best song EVER, dude:
If we were speaking in person, I’d do the handclaps for you and we could all have a ‘Wayne’s World’ style singalong. In fact, Toni Basil did loads of great songs – check this one out! This also seems a good time to dredge up the perennial believe-it-or-not pop fact that she actually began her career as one of the girls in the graveyard acid trip sequence in “Easy Rider”! She also appeared in “Five Easy Pieces” and Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie”, and directed the video for Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime”, amongst other things. So yeah, before you instinctively start trying to work out how old she was when doing her pop princess bit in the early ‘80s, let’s simply agree that this woman is all kinds of awesome and move on.
In ‘Hell Island’, Ms Basil portrays the ghost of recently departed rock star Sammy Mitchell, who, if not exactly the most charismatic dead rock star in history, certainly brings a new spark of interest to what was otherwise looking to wind down into a pretty dull movie. Supposedly, Sammy Mitchell was a terrifying heavy metal vixen who “performed on stage with real cadavers”, or so we’re informed. In yet another idea that must have sounded good on paper, being a ghost allows Sammy to appear in every scene in a different, outrageous outfit. Unfortunately, filtered through the reality of the perpetually perky and not-at-all-metal Toni Basil and a costume designer with limited resources and a Boy George fixation, this character, who must have leaped into Logothetis’ imagination as some kind of flaming Siouxsie Sioux meets King Diamond spectre, emerges somewhat sartorially underwhelming.
Another thing that’s somewhat underwhelming is Devo’s score for the movie. It’s pleasant enough, but for such an idiosyncratic band, they haven’t half gone out of their way to produce some generic, one-size-fits-all horror movie music here. So they do a Frizzi-esque “eerie calm with synths” main theme, and they do some Goblin-esque “running around music” with rock guitars, and that’s about it really. Any Devo freaks checking out the movie for evidence of their heroes involvement are liable to come away disappointed, then as now.
It’s interesting to note though that the Toni Basil / Devo connection runs a lot deeper than just this movie – turns out she dated the band’s Gerald Casale for a while, and that she re-recorded a whole batch of Devo songs in the mid-eighties and did goofy MTV-friendly videos for several of them, as part of what seems to have been a concerted (albeit unsuccessful) effort to help the band break into the mainstream pop market. Which seems to beg the question: who brought who to the production of ‘Hell Island’? I’m guessing that Basil was probably on board first, simply because, whilst I’m not the biggest Devo fan in the world, I do respect their way of doing things, and I’d imagine that if they decided to get involved with a horror movie, they’d probably pick one a bit more distinctive and less crummy than this. That, and the slight and derivative nature of the music they produced for the film would also seem to belie an overall lack of interest.
Anyway, back to the movie, it soon becomes clear that Toni’s main role is going to be as EXPOSITION LADY, and as such she rattles through a double-quick, flashback-aided summary of precisely what the hell is going on, relating how Alcatraz is in fact haunted by the vengeful spirit of a satanic ‘commandant’ (did Civil War era American prisons really have ‘commandants’…? Oh, never mind…) who was burned alive on the island by Indian witchdoctors way back before the prison was established, and how she herself was once a mild-mannered, book-ish chick before an interest in the occult led her to take on the role of an exhibitionist heavy metal star, and how the crowning achievement of her magickal career was going to involve locating and taking command of the super-powerful evil spirit which the witchdoctors had buried in a vessel in a crypt on the island, only.. (pauses for breath)… only actually it was too powerful for her to control and got all unleashed and killed her and her band, so now she’s used beyond the grave dream projection to summon Alex, who, for some fucked up reason, has been chosen to banish the evil. Phew.
All of which is frankly a lot more interesting than watching more lethargic stalk-n’-kill sequences on boring, grey-painted faux-prison sets, so I wish they’d taken the time to expand on it all a bit, but no such luck.
Next we’re treated to a bit more script/directorial weirdness, as all the characters who have died thus far start popping up as ghosts that only Alex can see, and bitching at him as he tries to go about his banishing-the-evil-whatever duties, leading to lots of “huh? Has he done crazy? He’s talking to himself!” cutaways to the still living characters, and a certain amount of confusion regarding who’s dead, who’s alive and who’s turned evil, further stretching the coherence of a script that by this stage only makes the haziest sort of sense at the best of times.
And… well, so it goes on. If you guessed that the rat-infested tunnel / shambling monster footage from the movie’s opening sequence was going to make a reappearance at the finale, well done, you guessed right.
So, do you reckon Alex and his kinda-sorta girlfriend and the lady Professor will successfully banish the big evil?
Do you think he’ll manage to get over the fact that his demonically possessed brother just massacred most of his friends with surprising ease?
Do you think Toni Basil will duet with Devo over the end credits?
I think you know the answers just as well as I do.
Is ‘Hell Island’ actually worth tracking down or watching though…? Well, does an accordion player wear a ring on his pinky finger?