Sunday, May 10, 2009

D.I.Y. GRINDHOUSE: EARTH DAY



Four friends are gathered around a campfire toasting (with various substances legal and illegal) the memory of a fallen friend on the anniversary of said friend’s untimely, and gruesome, death. Soon one of the surviving friends will himself be dead, and a pattern of murders victimizing the rest of the group will kick into gear, culminating in a blood-spattered showdown between the final survivor and the killer, whose identity may or may not be known. It’s a familiar scenario, one that has provided the skeletal structure for many a post-Halloween kill movie, including the seemingly endless Friday the 13th series, Terror Train and Prom Night, to name just a very few. Of course, these skeletons were exhumed from the even moldier corpses of Agatha Christie hits like And Then There Were None and The Mousetrap and adapted to much more visceral ends, along the way jettisoning the niceties of what little character development even Christie could provide in favor of crudely conjured dread and that dread’s payoff, cleverly imagined slaughter. But now that all those dead cinematic bodies have been duly autopsied via the look-at-me post-modernity of Scream and an endless stream of likeminded cousins, a deconstructive process that itself has given way to a swing back through “torture porn” toward more straightforward horror exercises and nostalgic “reboots” of known franchises, just what is an irreverent horror comedy with more than a slight tendency toward gross-out transgressions to do to establish its own identity?

Why, head straight down the grindhouse rabbit hole, that’s what. Down that hole, the average moviegoer (and filmmaker) may discover that craft and noticeable production values are not so valued or necessary as is the desire to become established among a subterranean tradition of horror filmmaking that snubs mainstream values by virtue of what Pauline Kael once described (in writing about National Lampoon’s Animal House) an anti-style-- that is, artlessness and perhaps even ineptitude as an individual, if not exactly deliberate, aesthetic. Your local Blockbuster has shelf upon shelf filled with straight-to-video titles, most of which are negligible trash, half-heartedly slick attempts to create Hollywood calling cards by remaining true to the most worn-out genre tropes. These are the kinds of films that used to fill drive-ins and second-run houses in the days before home video. By the early ‘90s movies that once would have had the chance to become trash classics on the order of Death Race 2000, Slumber Party ’57, The Pom Pom Girls or Macon County Line had no venue in which to be showcased—even the drive-ins that survived were turning toward first-run family-oriented fare, and a picture with a genuine B-movie sensibility worthy of its grindhouse lineage was likely to get lost among the glut of crappy action thrillers and bloody horror rip-offs that have taken up more than their share of space on video store shelves ever since.


Rebecca Teran and Zak Johnson sing the insistenly, demonically catchy tune "A Basic Revolution" unto the dying of the light, in Earth Day. (Photo courtesy of Faux Show Productions.)

I’m not at all convinced that Mr. Ooh-La-La’s Earth Day is worthy of comparison to the highlights among low-rent drive-in shockers of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but it is a movie whose sensibility, something like what the John Waters of Multiple Maniacs might have come up with had he been at the helm of something like April Fool’s Day, is very much at home with those films and their self-cannibalizing nature. I think it’d be a damn shame and a great missed opportunity if it were to never find its way onto an outdoor screen somewhere in rural Texas, where its insider satiric jabs at ecologically progressive sentiments might have a shot at being appreciated for their polar opposite intention, continuing yet another aspect of the fates that befell many a liberal-minded genre thriller whose parody of bloodlust and/or political paranoia was never strong enough to override the undiluted real-life corollaries of those elements in their fired-up rural drive-in audiences. Seen outdoors, I’m guessing that Earth Day’s meandering D.I.Y. feel and broad (and I mean broad) humor, at least for those who remember drive-ins in the ‘60s and ‘70s, would play more like strengths, deemphasizing the movie’s anti-style and devotion to a pair of lead characters who are not worthy of the movie’s attentions. The director, who prefers to be addressed as Mister, is not beyond the obligatory Hitchcock references, but for the most part this movie, his debut as a filmmaker, is one that is less devoted to cinematic lineage or even simple craft than it is to the intermittently electric charge of chutzpah involved in marshaling the troops behind his ideas and getting the film made at all. That, and some really graphic gross-outs that succeed not because of the sensational, yet cheesy gore effects (Tom Savini, your legacy is secure), but instead largely on the concepts those effects are there to dress up, some of which are just skin-crawling enough to make us wonder about the stability of the person who conjured them up. And for a filmmaker who holds Waters as a personal hero, this is far more of a compliment than you might think.

Those friends gathered around the campfire at the start of Earth Day (Rebecca Teran, Josef Gordon, Zak Johnson and Johanna Laemle) are a group of eco-friendly crusaders of a stripe very typical among the population of “Emerald City, U.S.A,” a so-thinly-disguised-as-to-not-be-disguised-at-all Eugene, Oregon, where tree-hugging and wearing hemp is as common as a Starbucks on every corner. They guzzle cheap wine, smoke prodigious spliffs and bemoan the death of their beloved Pixie (Koi O’ELtressiah) who, as we will discover in a flashback later on, had her head flattened under the back tire of an unsympathetic redneck’s pickup truck during a tree-sit protest one year ago to the day. Leif (Johnson), Pixie’s boyfriend, is particularly distraught, having never come to terms with his lover’s gory demise, and mere minutes after he parts company with his companions he stops for a whiz, dedicating to Pixie’s memory the return to nature of his own heady stream of piss. A mysterious stranger with dirty hippie feet soon dismembers Zak’s comically gigantic schlong, dedicating it back to its natural origins in much the same way, and we’re off and running.

Or at least we would be, were it not for the rather lumpily rendered story of the movie’s actual main characters—Pixie’s sour, Goth-fixated twin sister Priscilla (Daphne Danger) and the poor sap who discovers Zak’s body, Hassan (Adrian Salge), a Pakistani with terrorist ties who just wants his share of the “capitalist hair pie” as the creator of a line of organically concocted hair care products. Each of Pixie’s followers has a grisly showcase death, a series of offings that escalate in grotesquerie until the movie finally takes a leap which makes the killing of the hooker with a can of sink cleanser in Magnum Force look restrained and tasteful in comparison. And these four actors are uniformly fine. Johnson infuses Leif with a sort of fresh-scrubbed sincerity—his pain is palpable—that complements his Tom Petty-ish good looks; and Johanna Laemle as Lily discovers one clever line reading after another as the aptly named Lily, who is eventually planted by the killer in her own nursery. But the true highlights of Earth Day are provided by a trio of performers who are admirably animated and often subtly underplay to the high-strung pitch of the rest of the production. Josef Gordon is so deadpan terrific and unflappable as a dreadlocked stoner complete with a halting, puffy-eyed delivery that turns even his straightest line into high hilarity that it was a genuine shock to discover the affable, sharp-witted actor I met after the screening. Rebecca Teran has a warm sensuality and exquisite comic timing that she exploits to the hilt as the young woman who trades away her eco-values for a shot at Britney-style fame—she’s the one who falls victim to the movie’s most grotesque kill, and its crudity is shocking. (Of course, it's at this moment that Earth Day locates its cold, stiff, grindhouse heart.) It’s a testament to Teran and Gordon’s talents that we care as much as we do about these people, who would likely have only been caricatures in the hands of less capable performers, and that their deaths hurt as much as they do. Finally, Bruce Lundy takes a stock role, the grizzled detective Torrance, and sternly provides straight-faced comedy to counterbalance the unsure tone of many of the scenes he so often more than capably steals. His presence, and that of his calculatedly offensive catch phrase (“Sweet shit of Christ!”), is greatly missed when the movie turns its gaze away from the murders. (And about that catch phrase: it’s funny enough that round about its third appearance in the movie, I started to think of other phrases that Mister might have come up with to keep things fresh and still exploit the baroque religious fetishism at the heart of his detective’s vulgarities—maybe a “Withering whore of Babylon!” or something like that?)

Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative does trade big swathes of screen time away from the good, gory stuff and inexplicably becomes the story (and the back stories) of the rather less interesting Priscilla and the borderline offensive caricature of Hassan. There’s nothing wrong with political satire or a parody of current societal prejudice that has at its center an ethnic cartoon-- Peter Sellers got away with it all the time. The problem is that Mister hasn’t come up with anything funny enough, or pointed enough vis-a-vis the rest of the narrative, to justify the amount of time his movie devotes to Hassan’s adventures in Pakistan. (Even the obvious desperation of the D.I.Y. set design is a joke that wears thin very quickly.) And Adrian Salge is no Peter Sellers, unfortunately. This kind of performance requires a commitment on the part of director and performer that defies the inevitable charges of insensitivity and bolsters against them with a richness of conception and execution that isn’t in evidence here. Sometimes it seems like Salge is barely aware of the meaning of what he’s saying, but then again Mister’s script saddles him, perhaps the movie’s least confident actor, with tangled mouthfuls of dialogue that would challenge the most seasoned Thespian.

Salge’s post 9-11 minstrel leanings are preferable, however, to the lack of energy provided by Danger’s Priscilla. She’s is given very little to do but float through the movie on a cloud of smug indifference, and her presence as an actress is itself so indifferent that it serves to undermine what the audience should have at stake in her efforts to find out who is killing all of her sister’s friends, friends for which she has little else but contempt to offer in place of sympathy. Much of her storyline is given over to her struggles with her nutso plastic surgeon father (Gaylord Walker) and his assistant, her evil stepmother (Elizabeth Myers). For some reason these two are constantly popping into the static frame and threatening to cart Priscilla off to their house, or a nuthouse, or some other house and do something nasty and suppressive to her; this is the narrative element that most threatens to spin Earth Day’s wheels right off its axles, and Mister has directed an all-too-willing Walker (and to a much lesser extent Myers) to shatter the glass ceiling of histrionics in flailing attempt to achieve orbit, a dictum to which the actor slavishly gives the old college try. (Students of the Roger Corman School of Character Types will recognize Walker and Myers as hyper-caffeinated burlesque riffs on the kinds of lunatics usually essayed by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov.)


Daphne Danger, Tom Kelsey, Gaylord Walker and Bruce Lundy wonder what's up a tree, in Earth Day. (Photo courtesy of Faux Show Productions.)

The movie is rescued, however, by the inevitable turn back to its whodunit thriller structure. (That dirty hippie feet visual motif should clue attentive viewers to the identity, or at least the gender, of the killer rather quickly.) A first-time filmmaker, Mister wears his influences on his sleeve—not only Waters, but also Hitchcock is invoked in the movie’s inept exposition of the revealed killer’s motivation, and even Brian De Palma, who masterfully parodied Psycho’s mundane psychological literalism and found a way to visually transform it into grist for Dressed to Kill’s mill of sexual and gender fear. Mister has much to learn about how to use the camera—too many of Earth Day’s scenes play out in front of static set-ups or are edited illogically, independent of character motivation or visual design. But he has chosen to learn from two of cinema’s most visually arresting, richly imaginative filmmakers, and the germ of inspiration is there to be detected in many of the movie’s scenes, even if they are shot with very little sense of how the camera can be used to accentuate the humor and/or horror of even a home-grown mise-en-scene such as the one on display here. Mister’s lack of visual effrontery and dazzle by no means deemphasizes the sense of fun that the audience is privy to, even when the movie goes furthest off its rails. In fact, his by-no-means elegant gift is that of a true ballsy showman, one who is able to transfix the people under his watch with his enthusiasm and care, even if that enthusiasm outstrips his actual ability as a writer and director at this point in his career. It's what makes me believe he'll have plenty of treats in store further on down the road.

Earth Day is by no means perfect, but enough of it works, and there’s evidence of Mister’s cool hand with some of his actors, to suggest that as he makes more films and refines his craft (or at least learns more about it so that the rejection of craft will come, as it did for Waters, to mean something altogether new) he will have more interesting places to take his audience and find more ways to transport us there visually. As it stands, Earth Day doesn’t quite do for Eugene what Night of the Living Dead did for Pittsburgh, but it’s a hell of a start. It’s a snarky blast of horror movie love from a true believer, and if it ever finds its way onto the midnight movie circuit, or onto a drive-in screen near you, you might be forgiven for thinking it is 1979 while you’re watching it instead of 30 years later, just as you forgive the movie itself its flaws for the spirit of crafty, jittery low-grade junk it so well evokes.

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All three April 22, 2009 screenings of Earth Day were high-spirited sell-outs. I saw the movie twice, in the company of cast and crew, and again with the general public, and it was without a doubt received in the spirit in which it was intended by insiders and Eugene Ticket-buyer as well. A great time was had by all, especially when Bruce’s brother’s friend, Jeff Varner, provided us with Detective Torrance T-shirts each bearing the crusty but benign lawman’s signature blasphemy. Of course we arrived at the screening wearing them, and they were the hit and the extreme envy of all in attendance. For those in the neighborhood, Earth Day will screen again this coming Friday, May 15, at the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts in Eugene, at 7:15 and 9:15. (You can get your tickets here.) Also, happily, Mister informs those bookmarked to his Faux Show Productions Web site that additional screenings in the Northwest will be forthcoming this year, and he’ll be taking his faux show on the road to the East Coast-- dates and places yet to be specified-- in August, followed by a visit to California in October. And if the movie never makes it to your neck of the blood-spattered woods, fear not-- Faux Show Productions promises a deluxe edition two-disc DVD, complete with extras and audio commentary, scheduled to arrive in July. Finally, as a founding member in good standing of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society, if Mister ever gets the movie transferred to 35mm, I would love to try to help make that Earth Day drive-in screening become a reality. Stay tuned! And stop by DIVA in downtown Eugene this coming Friday night for a good, gory time courtesy of Mr. Ooh-La-La.


(From left: Yours Truly, Teresa Lundy, Chris Lundy, Pattie Lundy, Jeff Varner-- creator of the hellbound T-shirts-- and the star of the evening, Bruce Lundy at the April 22 screening of Earth Day in Eugene, Oregon.)

(Photo courtesy of Bruce Lundy)

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6 comments:

Mister said...

Thanks for the review, Dennis! I hope to see you this fall!

Greg said...

I love the perfect balance of that photo. Clearly there were two cameras taking pictures at the same time. You, Chris and Bruce are looking at camera number two, and the other three are looking at camera number one that produced this picture. A perfect three for three split but I want to see the other photo where you're looking at the camera.

Rebecca said...

Wow. Dennis, thank you for giving of your time to review EARTHDAY, what a, for lack of a better word, MEATY review at that! and thank you, thank you, thank you for the kind words...it was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to the next time.
<3rebecca

blaaagh said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and well-considered review, Dennis--and for your kind words about me, too! I appreciate that you tackled reviewing our film and appreciated it--and took it to task as you felt necessary--for what it is and what Mister intended it to be. It's been interesting working on films: for one thing, I've discovered it's great fun, and for another, I've really gotten a taste for how much an actor's performance can be effected by the editing, and of course by how one is directed. I mean, I knew this as a viewer of a film, but it's different to experience it. Happily for me, I feel good about how my stuff turned out--and I love the way the music enhances our cop scenes...that's another nice thing to experience.

Haha--Greg, that's funny about the photo. Dennis gave me credit, but I believe it was Elizabeth Myers who supplied that one. I'll see if I can find one where everybody's looking at the same camera; obviously there were a lot of cameras out there...we Eugeneans aren't used to this sort of thing.

Rebecca, you're a star! And Daphne Danger, that photo of you is killer. So to speak.

Bruce

Greg said...

blaaagh, I'd love to see more photos if you have them. It really would be cool though to see the exact opposite picture that was being taken at that moment, the one Dennis was looking at, and toggle them back and forth on a computer screen.

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