Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Brain Twisters


Brain Twisters (1991)
Dir. and written by Jerry Sanguliano
Starring Farrah Forke, Terry Londeree, Joe Lombardo




            In the early 1990s, there was a low-simmering fear that computers were going to turn us all into psychotic killers (see, EVILSPEAK, BRAINSCAN, LAWNMOWER MAN, BRAIN TWISTERS). Nowadays, of course, we know that was silly. They only encouraged us to turn into psychotic killers by exposing us to a constant undiluted barrage of humanity’s darkest and most unrestrained compulsions all day, every day, year after year. Most of us just turned into passive piles of clinically depressed glucose, and the rest became aggrieved, reactionary monsters furiously sending rape threats to any woman online who had the audacity to disagree about what Luke Skywalker would do in a given situation. But mostly not psychotic killers, by and large, with probably only a few hundred exceptions a year. So, bullet dodged.

            Back in the innocent days of 1991, though, we had no idea that’s what would happen. In fact, this movie alleges, we didn’t really know what would happen if students were exposed for minutes at a time to abstract pixelated computer animation. It might very well twist their damn brains, for example! Which is, in this case, exactly what happens when the villainous professor referred to alternately as “Dr. Phillip Roth” or “Dr. Phillip Rothstein” (the credits say “Dr. Phillip Rothman,” but what do they know? Let’s just call him “Dr. Phil”) (Terry Londeree, 40th-billed in the Mormon romantic epic THE WORK AND THE GLORY, no other credits) begins subjecting students to some sort of experiment where they watch an 8-bit light show in a little darkened booth while a trippy electronic soundscape plays. Needless to say, it’s not long before one of them (this guy Ted, Shura McComb, no other credits) cracks up, possibly murders his girlfriend (though I don’t think that’s ever definitively established), freaks out at a pinball machine while being interviewed by police, and leaps out the window to his death. 


This is certainly tragic, but would not seem sinister or suspicious in any way, because let’s face it, college students are ridiculous and barely able to stay alive even in the best of conditions (in fact, one of the first emails I received upon arrival to college was a campus-wide communication from the university, begging in apparent helpless desperation for students to please for the love of god stop falling out windows.) There would be absolutely no way to link this dork Ted’s odd behavior to these experiments, except that Dr. Phil gets uncomfortably possessive about the corpse, claims it for himself and demands the cops get a judge to force him to release it, a move which he seems to regard as super slick but definitely, uh, raises some red flags with law enforcement. Even when he gets a court order, he huffs, “I have some imperative matters to accomplish. I’ll be there in an hour,” and storms off, which Detective Frank Turi (Joe Lombardo, PLEASE DON’T EAT THE BABIES) seems to think is rude but not completely outrageous behavior. Turi smells a rat, but since it would be pretty crazy for him to immediately jump to the conclusion that a professor is driving his students insane by subjecting them to a groovy screen-saver, Dr. Phil continues his experiments, all the while being pushed forward by a nefarious business concern which apparently wants his research for a video game? Which I think is supposed to brainwash kids and turn them into mind control agents, although it’s not clear that Dr. Phil is aware of the potential applications of his pure science.

Also there is the main character, White Girl #1 (Farrah Forke, Wings, Lois and Clark, HEAT) who is a college student of some sort, and will perpetually be hovering on the outskirts of all this stuff without ever being directly involved. I believe she will be mentioned exactly one more time in this lengthy review, when she is served a plate of spaghetti.


            BRAIN TWISTERS almost immediately gets down to the business of dragging out a bunch of cheerfully dumb cliches, starting with a rare combo deal of two of my favorite college cliches at once: 1) the professor makes the only relevant point he’s going to make in a presumably hour-long class just as the bell rings, and 2) our protagonist walks into class late, just before the only point we need to hear is being made. Separate, the two are still lazy movie cliches, but combined they becomes a bit surreal as we’re left to accept this young woman casually walks into the class literally seconds before the bell rings. That’s no way to get an education!




            With its standard shady-corporate-science-gone-too-far hook and an even more standard vanilla detective snooping around while a bunch of disposable cracker college kids and their one affirmative action friend get bumped off, BRAIN TWISTERS gamely sets itself up for being exactly what you imagine it is. But of course, this isn’t just some hacky B-movie cranked out by AIP or Cannon or somebody. This is a first-time director working for the prestigious Crown International Pictures, whose regal moniker is somewhat belied by their official website, which appears to have been put up shortly after BRAIN TWISTERS premiered in 1991 and left in its pristine original form ever since. When you think of B-movies, you might think of BLOODSPORT or something. CIP (which had been around since the late 50’s, and made a film as recently as 2003!) was not making BLOODSPORT. Hell, it was not even making AMERICAN NINJA 3: BLOOD HUNT. It’s making things like BLOOD MANIA or CRATER LAKE MONSTER or BLUE MONEY, which identifies its genre as "Soft-Porn" :





CIP is probably best known for the terrible-movie classics THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS and MADMEN OF MANDORAS: THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, films so unbelievably insane and incompetent that they transcend puny human judgements like “good” or “bad.” Granted, those were made in the early 60’s, but the reviews of more recent fare do not suggest that experience improved their creative process much.** And so it was that even in 1991, director Jerry Sanguliano (filming in Scranton, Pennsylvania) managed to make something which is not just terrible, but somtimes terrible in confusing, inexplicable ways which make one wonder how recently Sanguliano had actually watched a real movie.

So right after the opening salvo of cliches, things get more offbeat. First, a major shock: this turns out to be a rare and possibly even unique college movie where a student tries to sleep with a creepy professor for a better grade, and he actually turns her down and tells her to work harder! (Or, alternatively, participate in his evil experiments). Wow, the times, they are a’changing! Of course, someone has to bang the sexy co-ed, I mean, come on, Sanguilio may not have seen that many movies, but he knows that much. So they just have the cop investigating the murder/suicides of all her friends do it, which is hopefully not standard police procedure in these cases. Here’s good mental health tip, ladies: If a cop ever tells you he has to talk to you about the details of your friends’ grisly murder/suicides case that he “can’t get into over the phone,” and then proposes he come over to your house and tell you over dinner...  just say “no.” It can only lead to tedious conversation and inappropriate behavior with a side dish of mind-control murder (and a plate of ostentatiously elaborately prepared ...spaghetti... that both he and the movie agree makes him pretty much the greatest chef since Boyardee).


"I'm not used to an electric stove!" he grouses, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of heat which does not originate with visible flames. This is after chiding this broke-ass college student, who has to work in a creepy lab after school just to make ends meet, about having an insufficiently gourmet selection of herbs. Solid police work, dude.  

Inexplicably, though, this blatant feint towards a more prurient appeal doesn’t actually lead to the expected softcore payoff. They passionately make out in a cramped kitchen, sure, but no clothing whatsoever is removed. In fact, you’ll notice as BRAIN TWISTERS grinds along that it features all the standard beats of a sleazy exploitation movie -- forbidden love subplot, shower murder, even an extraneous bath scene… and yet, not only is there no nudity, there’s not even a hint of T n’ A unless you’re into the tops of people’s shoulders under a mountain of bubbles. Without any leering nudity to distract you, your mind might well start to wander to other topics, such as “gosh, is there any blood in this movie, either?” There are a few deaths, but two happen off-screen, and the only one I think we actually see is a scissor-slashing which results in a thin line of blood on the victim's’ neck, briefly glimpsed as he falls over. The movie claims to be rated R, but unless they dropped some profanity in there that I didn’t notice, I sure can’t imagine why.

After a while, finally it becomes clear that this low-rent horror movie isn’t peddling sex or violence (and it’s certainly not selling itself on high drama) and that it’s instead putting all its eggs in the visual effects basket. Which translates to: a lot of the movie is spent watching oscillating colored squares, which was about the coolest thing computers could produce on the cheap in 1991. Alas, I’m afraid it doesn’t quite hold up as a reason to watch an entire 91 minute movie the way sex and violence reliably do. But I guess it’s cool in a lame sort of way. At any rate, I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.





I mean, there were things that could have been built on, here. The cast seems to be making an effort with their inane, glacially paced dialogue scenes. Londeree, as the villainous professor,  acquits himself nicely enough by doing a solid John Glover (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS) impersonation, which is fine, because I like John Glover.** And some credit is due to the filmmakers for (whether by amateurish naivety or intentional undermining expectation) not going the obvious route with the villainous professor character. (SPOILERS for a movie you’re definitely not going to see) Any normal movie with this plot would posit him as a sociopathic villain recklessly killing off students for personal gain. He seems real shady and he’s definitely a jerk, but... it turns out he is genuinely surprised that his experiments are killing people, and as soon as he learns, he stops doing them! In fact, since he’s also been experimenting on himself (as we glean from a SHINING-esque glance through his notebook as it chronologically becomes illegible and insane), he’s really just as much a victim as the dead kids, which sort of retroactively explains his bizarre behavior.

There’s a scene later in the movie where he acts really weird to our ostensible heroine (OK, one more mention of her, you caught me) and creepily offers her ice cream (“Vanilla? Come on Laura, be a little daring!” he says, with a weird mix of off-putting strangeness and genuine earnestness, like he’s really trying to inspire her with some wise advice). It would be a pretty standard “overtly friendly sinister guy” scene if we hadn’t just learned that his mind is so scrambled he can’t even write legibly anymore. I think he might genuinely believe he’s being friendly and helpful, and isn’t aware he’s a few pinball machine dings away from turning into a homicidal maniac. It’s kind of a tragic direction to take with the ostensible villain, and it really could have been a potentially interesting character if the movie ever realized it (hard to know if Londeree does get it, or if he just stumbled naively into an interesting portrayal through incompetence, but there’s definitely something intriguing in his performance, if not the script). 


The other parts, alas, are not even in the same time zone as “potentially interesting,” and so any effort on the actors’ parts adds up to exactly nothing. In fact, the harder they try the more dull they make it, since their efforts aren’t anywhere near enough to create actual drama, but are more than enough to ensure you won’t have much fun snickering at their ineptitude (well, maybe the guy who plays Ted.)

The sound designer also seem to be making a real effort, using atonal glitchy computer sounds to depict the killers’ electronically fried mental state. Again, it’s not even remotely close to making the thing watchable, but at least it’s a net gain for the movie. And there’s a Halloween party with masks and stuff, where the only actual “kill” takes place. It’s badly lit and the masks are lame, but it was a thought. You can imagine a remake with a few more genre goods and a good deal more (or less) competence making something less bland out of these elements. Not this time, though; I’m sorry to say so, but mostly it’s not even incompetent in an interesting way. It’s a bad tale badly told, but even at that it’s just too stale and uneventful to even be worth more than a fitful chuckle. The ugly, overlit 1990s photography and borderline competent but witheringly dull characters can’t really be blamed for its failure --it was a lost cause from the start-- but certainly do their part to doom it to rightful obscurity.

There is one cheerfully ridiculous bit that made me laugh out loud, though: once it’s become clear that prolonged exposure to microsoft paint is having deleterious effects on the experimental subjects, Dr. Phil calls up his evil financial backer and yells at him that he thinks this research is “the cause of all these murders and suicides around here, don’t you understand?” and the guy denies it in pretty specific terms and hangs up, then indulges in a few minutes of quiet post phone-call reverie while staring thoughtfully into the distance. That in itself isn’t so funny, except that the next shot changes from a close-up to a long shot… and suddenly we see that he’s not in his office, he’s sitting at the head of long desk in a meeting with about twenty other people, patiently waiting for him to remember they're still there! They’re in on the conspiracy too, but man, it was pretty rude of him to take this phone call right in the middle of a meeting! 






(I'm also not sure where those curtains and window came from, but let's not linger on that)


Anyway, I take no pleasure from saying this, but BRAIN TWISTERS has held up about as well as its still-active website, which you should definitely check out (inexplicably under the title FRACTALS, which IMDB assures me is actually a long-gestating 2013 sequel with an identical cast and plot, even though the photo montage in the website is obviously from this movie). In fact, irony of ironies, watching it probably more likely to drive you to murder-suicide than any pixelated light show ever could. But if something this dull was going to push you over the edge, that’s really sort of on you, anyway.



* Though my favorite IMDB review of 1977’s THECRATER LAKE MONSTER takes an... unexpected perspective to film criticism:  


**Say, whatever happened to John Glover? You couldn’t escape him in the 80s, but it looks like he hasn’t had a single significant role since his stint on Smallville. Did he just get replaced by  William Fichtner? That seems unfair. We could always use more John Glover.

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2017 CHECKLIST!
The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

TAGLINE
An Experiment in Mind Control is Out Of Control... And The Body Count is Building!
TITLE ACCURACY
BRAIN TWISTERS seems a kinda mild description of “mental breakdown leading to insanity suicide and murder,” but sure, why not.
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
Good lord, no
SEQUEL?
None, although IMDB seems to erroneously suggest that FRACTALS is a sequel
REMAKE?
No
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
USA
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Techno-Anxiety, mind control
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
Is Farrah Forke considered A-list because of Wings? No, right?
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
None
NUDITY?
None
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
No
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No animals
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
None
POSSESSION?
Mind control
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
None
MADNESS?
Definitely
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
No
VOYEURISM?
The evil corporation is watching and surveilling people
MORAL OF THE STORY
Studying harder in college is a good way to avoid having to sleep with your creepy professor or having your mind twisted! Do yourself a favor and show up for class before the bell rings, even if it’s just to hear the one important sentence in the hour-long class!



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Black Scorpion


The Black Scorpion (1957)
Dir. Edward Ludwig
Written by Robert “Not the Blees, NOT THE BLEES!!!” Blees, David Duncan
Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro



THE BLACK SCORPION offers two things, and only two things. One is those is endless scenes of generically handsome square scientists (Richard Denning, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, and Carlos Rivas, THE KING AND I, TRUE GRIT) having meaningless longwinded exposition dialogue or aggressively putting the moves on an irrelevant hot local lady (1950s pinup cult figure Mara Corday, THE GIANT CLAW*). The other is stop-motion scenes of giant scorpions wrecking shit up intercut with footage of an adorable googly-eyed scorpion puppet face.

One of those two things is a lot of fun to watch. The other is is capable of incapacitating a grown man in a matter of seconds. Guess what the ratio of one to the other is.

Nah, I kid, BLACK SCORPION is ultimately pretty fun. But it definitely suffers from a catastrophic excess of corny 1950s dorkiness. During some of the flirting scenes, the actors are mugging so shamelessly that it seems imminently possible it might degenerate into a singing cowboy movie and squander all the goodwill you earn by showing me giant stop-motion scorpions wrecking shit up. And of course, there’s also this infuriating little kid (Mario Navarro, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) like they had back then, who is always stowing away with the military and putting himself and everyone else in mortal danger because aren’t kids just the darndest lil things. It would be unfair and unreasonable not to expect some cheesy, stiff drama in a movie like this --it’s par for the course, and even the very best movies of THE BLACK SCORPION’s ilk are suffused with it-- but even with that expectations, the non-scorpion parts here are pretty dire.

This seems like a good time for a long hypothetical conversation about science.

Another minor annoyance is that --like THEM!, the great grandaddy progenitor of all giant bug pictures-- it has an odd structure where it seems like the problem is resolved but then there’s an entire act still remaining which basically just repeats the first climax. Here --just like THEM!-- the film begins with partners (Denning and Rivas) who stumble onto an unexpected gigantic arthropod menace and must join forces with the military to do battle, and eventually dynamite the offending arachnids’ lair, and then just assume everything is fine without actually looking, like a Bond Villain leaving our hero alone in an easily escapable death trap. But of course, it’s only 60 minutes in, so that’s not gonna solve the problem; you gotta have a big final battle in an abandoned soccer (“futbol”) stadium with tanks and explosions and so forth.

The result is an abrupt narrative full halt followed by a reset which has to completely rebuild its lost momentum, and there isn’t quite time to manage it. That seems like a trifling complaint in a film this silly, but there’s also no reason on Earth that a giant bug flick of 88 minutes ought to suffer such a lack of narrative momentum. Writers Robert Blees (FROGS, WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO?) and David Duncan (THE TIME MACHINE, FANTASTIC VOYAGE) seem more intent on faithfully aping the structure of THEM! than considering if it’s actual good storytelling,** and it kind of reminds me of some of the early American slashers (HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE, TERROR TRAIN) which intuitively understood that a template for an entire genre had been established by one landmark film (THEM! for giant bugs, HALLOWEEN for slashers) but didn’t quite have the necessary perspective to recognize what parts of the template were intrinsically necessary to the formula and what parts were just distinctive details. The result is a movie with some obvious vestigial limbs showing, not entirely without charm but certainly without much grace.

But who can stay mad at this face?

But, when there’s giant scorpions on-screen, you’re willing to forgive a whole lot. In a giant scorpion picture, only a fool would trade even a frame of enthusiastic stop-motion mayhem for the most elegantly plotted narrative in history. Priorities are what separates a good-bad movie from a bad-bad movie, and THE BLACK SCORPION wisely prioritizes putting forth as much of the title character as possible. The animation (Ostensibly by KING KONG’s Willis O’Brien, but reportedly mostly by his protege, the improbably named Pete Petersen) is lively and full of the kind of eccentric detail and personality and I look for in this sort of hogwash, and they’re smart enough to throw in a variety of scenarios. And also giant bugs. There’s plenty of giant scorpions, of course, but they also get a 30 foot carnivorous worm in there, and a cameo by a giant spider. If he had a good enough agent he could probably have gotten a little box around his name on the poster. Or at least an “and” credit. He makes a real impression in his brief appearance.

Tantalizingly, there’s also reason to believe these non-scorpion creepy-crawlies may actually be veteran players humiliatingly forced to play second fiddle to these young upstart flash-in-the-pan BLACK SCORPIONS: it seems there is quite a bit of online speculation that these models were, in fact, the very ones which were infamously cut from the fabled KING KONG “spider pit” sequence. Amazing as that sounds, it actually seems fairly plausible (there’s not really any reason for such a menagerie of creatures to appear in this lazy b-movie, and O’Brien reportedly borrowed heavily from old models and effects in this film) but alas, I can find no specific source which confirms the speculation, and a few other sources are willing to spoil our fun by pointing out that Ray Harryhausen claimed that many KING KONG models were still stored at RKO in the 1950’s, where many had met with a slow death by decay by this time. Still, since the Spider-pit models didn’t make it into the final print of KONG, it’s not hard to imagine that they were of less interest to RKO and could have ended up in this unassuming little movie without much notice.




Anyway, whether or not BLACK SCORPION is as close as any human is ever likely to get to the holiest grail of all lost cinema, it’s a hoot to watch a bunch of giant stop-motion bugs menace tiny humans, and it boasts an embarrassment of riches in that regard. If they really made all these models and did all this animation just for this dorky B-picture, color me impressed and pass my compliments to the chef, because they could easily have done half as much work and still comfortably fit into the herd of giant bug flicks from the 50’s. Recycled or not, though, the end result offers a lot more whammy than your average giant [noun] formula matinee flick. They even try something a little different by vaguely superimposing real footage of a skittering living scorpion over footage of large crowds running in fear. It doesn't work even slightly, but the effect is kind of weird and nightmarish, and I've never seen anything quite like it. That’s hustle, and I respect it.

I mean, for a horror movie this is ludicrous, but for an art movie it would rock.

Another group really hustling here? Scientists. (In this case, Volcanologists, who have enough to worry about what with earthquakes and exploding mountains of liquid rock and should not, by god, feel any professional obligation to deal with giant arachnids of any kind). You gotta love that earnest 1950’s reverence for science, which is pretty easy to mock, but considering where we’ve gone since then feels positively heartwarming in retrospect. There’s not a speck of doubt in THE BLACK SCORPION’s mind that all our problems can be solved by rational, modernist scientists backed up by a robust military, and so that’s the fantasy we get. Our heroic Volcanologists here are every bit as manly and virile as a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick (they just tend to express it by thoughtfully puffing a pipe and hypothesizing, rather than spin-kicks), and their work is viewed as unambiguously vital and honorable. One perfect encapsulation of the movie’s starry-eyed respect for the profession: Our intrepid men of book-learning actually take a camera with them when they go into the lost world of giant insects on a mission of destruction. The camera has no bearing on the plot, but the movie just naturally figures if we’ve gotta blow this up for the sake of mankind, at least it would be good to try and document some of it. That always bothers me in movies like this, where they have to blow up the ancient temple or the alien spaceship or whatever and no one acts like that’s a great loss for humanity. Way to respect the pursuit of knowledge, BLACK SCORPION.

Another pleasant surprise? Note that the movie features two equal partners, one Mexican and one American. They’re both geologists, both men of science, and there’s never any sense that the Americans consider Mexico or its inhabitants in any way inferior, or even that their respective nationalities divide them in any meaningful way. Granted, the Mexican guy doesn’t get the girl or have any notable dialogue in the entire second half of the movie, but he’s always there dammit, and the two banter about how beautiful Mexico is and discuss the brilliance of its scientists. That would sadly be hailed as progressive today, even in an non-giant-scorpion type movie scenario. Its gender politics are slightly less defensible, but hey, baby steps.

So yeah, in conclusion, if you like movies with giant stop-motion insects intercut with film footage of a big slow-moving googly-eyed scorpion puppet head, which are also less racist than you probably feared, I would recommend THE BLACK SCORPION.



*She also appeared in small roles in a number of films by her friend and TARANTULA co-star Clint Eastwood, including THE GAUNTLET, SUDDEN IMPACT, and PINK CADILLAC.

**Of course, the real tension in the movie is if these two will ever finish their geological volcano survey (which if I learned anything from my buddy Rob, means basically camping out in the most beautiful places on earth, growing a beard, smoking weed, and eventually marrying a beautiful French co-ed.) It’s almost a DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOIS with giant bugs, because they’re constantly about to start this damn thing and just keep getting interrupted by this and that, mainly scorpion-related.

CHAINSAWNUKAH 2017 CHECKLIST!
The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

TAGLINE
Don’t Be Afraid To Scream… It Helps To Relieve The Tension. This message of hope brought to you by the makers of THE BLACK SCORPION.
TITLE ACCURACY
There’s definitely a scorpion, though his unusually large size seems more relevant than his color
LITERARY ADAPTATION?
no
SEQUEL?
no
REMAKE?
none
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
US production, though according to IMDB at least some scenes were filmed in Mexico.
HORROR SUB-GENRE
Giant bugs!
SLUMMING A-LISTER?
None
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Willis O’Brien
NUDITY?
None
SEXUAL ASSAULT?
No
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
Pretty much the whole movie
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
No
POSSESSION?
None
CREEPY DOLLS?
No
EVIL CULT?
No
MADNESS?
No
TRANSMOGRIFICATION?
No
VOYEURISM?
No
MORAL OF THE STORY
Geologists must be well-rounded enough to statistically analyze mountains of tedious seismic data and be the last line of defense in the unlikely event of a giant insect attack.


Call it an affectionate C+