Another week, another roundup of my genre related writing from around the web. From bloody B-movie valentines to Blaxploitation vampires, its all of the terror thoughts my fine editors saw fit to print. As always, come chat with me in the comments or on Twitter.
How Killer Klowns From Outer Space Became the Last Great Creature Feature– Before the snarky self awareness of meta horror became the dominant mode, there was this delightful bit of big top horror from effects wizards the Chiodo brothers. A throwback to atomic age monster kid culture and vintage rubber suit romps, and likely the last great entry in that subgenre.
Jade Cochran (Claire Brennen) is a diner waitress with a terrible Southern accent and an even worse boss. When an advance man for a traveling show stops in for lunch, Jade leaves the greasy spoon behind for an exciting job at the carnival…..as a waitress.
Jade’s wonder at her new home allows director Byron Mabe (The Acid Eaters) PLENTY of time to linger over every detail of the shooting location, and there’s actually a pretty decent industrial/time capsule of carny life in all the meandering. Set up, tear down, hand painted banners, the actual mummified corpse of an Old West outlaw and accurate explanations of the snappy slang of showfolk are all present and accounted for with a 60’s lounge pop soundtrack.
After 20 minutes of grab ass at the greasy spoon, and a solid half hour of Jade’s day at the fair, the film suddenly remembers the framing device at its opening and gets into its actual plot. That plot being a half cooked knock off of Tod Browning’s 1932 classic, Freaks, give or take the actual sideshow performers and a burlesque style stripper.
Jade is our ersatz scheming acrobat, character actor Bill McKinney is the sweet natured sucker, and the firing of a little person ever so cleverly named Shorty (Felix Silla) is the catalyst for the unseen freaks’ revenge. Gorgeously tense avenging angels advancing in the rain, a few extras lit with color gels holding prop knives in their teeth, what’s the difference? You say potato, David Friedman and crew say po-tat-o.
The final transformation of Jade manages to be campy, crepe-y and cleavage-y all at once. Unless you are a sucker for circuses, carnivals and other old fashioned American amusements, its a bit of a slog to get to the reveal the movie sets up for in the opening sequence. If you have particularly fast fingers you can freeze frame the trailer above and catch the monster. Those with poor twitch reflexes can check out the poster art. Either way, you’ll have seen enough of this She Freak to to get your ten cents worth and make haste for the egress.
The juvenile delinquency subgenre was one of the evergreens of exploitation cinema. Every generation thinks the kids coming up behind them are just the wildest, most wanton monsters that ever existed, and the subject makes for an easy mix of sensationalism and mildly taboo titillations. In a cinematic realm known to be boldly transgressive of social norms and mores, it is unfailingly amusing that the rather conservative “Get off my lawn!” was one of exploitation’s loudest and longest lasting rallying cries.
From 1935 to roughly 1965, a host of B movie producers kept cranking out films that were as identical as McDonalds hamburgers. The flavors of moral panic and the fashions would change (jazz and liquor giving way to hot rods and tight sweaters) but the films would always work on the same basic engine.
Teens (read: not a day below 25) would be tempted by some combination of forbidden things that dared look like they might actually be fun. Sex, drugs, queerness, multiculturalism, or music with a beat you can actually dance to were all on the permanent naughty list.
At least one character (usually the designated hero, but not always) abstains from the debauchery, but is such a sanctimonious prat it is impossible to root for them, even on the rare occasions they are right. The wayward and their exploits provide the more salacious content that actually got asses in the seats.
That brings us to today’s film. A tale of two sisters, one as pure as the driven snow, the other headed toward the slush of late nights and stiff drinks. Let’s get into Elmer Clifton’s 1944 melodrama, Youth Aflame:
This particular print is billed under the alternate title of HoodlumGirls. The film was shot in 1942, released in 1944. Amazingly, prints were still kicking around the bottom of double features 15 years later, as the copyright date for the retitling is 1959. Youth Aflame/Hoodlum Girls outlived its own director, as Elmer Clifton died of a brain hemorrhage in 1949.
Meet Katy White (Joy Reese). She has been lying in state at the Receiving Hospital of the Police Department (as per the prominently placed signage). In the innocent days of 1944, I suppose people believed the police would have actual reason to want to help someone heal.
In any case, she briefly comes to from her coma/shock at the wartime ban on nylons/whatever. She shrieks about someone having a gun. Katy then notices her sister Laura (Kay Morley) at her bedside,and mumblingly chastises her about being too pretty to do the things she did, whatever those were. Framing device established, Katy daintily passes back out to cut to our first flashback.
Laura sneaks through the girls’ shared bedroom window after a late night of dancing and drinks with Mr. Al Simpson. Katy promptly lectures her about staying out late, having a drink and accepting the gifts of liquor and the rather fetching slip Laura is currently wearing.
Laura wants to drop out of school and marry Al. Katy, greatly overestimating the job market for women once the war ended, thinks Laura needs a diploma so she can afford to buy her own things
Not only is she a scold, but Katy had it backwards. Laura could ONLY do what she’s doing because she’s so pretty. A full night of dinner, drinks and dancing, new lingerie AND home in time to not wake dear old Daddy? Well played.
After a few more of Katy’s parent defending bedside confessions of a terminal kiss ass, we cut to our next flashback. Katy and Laura are being raised by their bank guarding single dad. He has no issue brandishing one of his work guns at the table, but scolds Katy for picking it up because “guns aren’t for girls”.
Half the neighborhood shows up to interrupt the family’s breakfast, including Mr. Al Simpson (who is just as much of a sleazy lech as you’d expect), some random guy who likes to spout factoids, the student body president from school, and a policewoman following up on Laura’s report of a skirt being stolen from her locker. Mr. White is nonplussed by all of this, until the female police officer shows up, because “police work is a man’s job”.
When Mr. White wanders back off to the living room to make an itemized list of all the other things puny ladybrains can’t do, Mr. Simpson takes the opportunity to suck face with Laura, and inform her that if she REALLY loves him, she’ll steal one of Daddy’s guns for his unspecified “business”.
Katy and the wholesome jars of mayo she calls friends help Madame Policewoman set up a milk bar called the JIVE club to keep the local teens out of trouble and on their way to the appropriate calcium intake. Because B pictures always need some insulation to hit minimum feature runtime, we watch along with the squares as some dork in a car salesman sport coat drums tunelessly for 5 minutes out of a 57 minute film.
Laura steps in for all of us when she sneaks off to a real bar (smart), to pass on the gun to Al Simpson while trying to convince him to marry her (not so much). At least the filler entertainment at the real bar is three pretty ladies who do some legitimately impressive acrobatics in heels.
While Katy and her squad of suck ups butter up Ms. Policewoman with tales of how she saved them at a critical time in their lives, where their nerdier friends “could have gone either way”, the intrepid investigator notices Laura is not amongst her fawning fans.
Katy briefly redeems herself when she goes to the real club to warn her sister that the fuzz are on their way. She then ruins it immediately by switching back to her usual nagging. Now that Laura has committed to her plan of getting Mr. Simpson to marry her, Katy gives her a lecture that you “shouldn’t want marriage to get AWAY from home, but to build one”
In any case, Al Simpson is sick of Katy’s meddling, and he needs the gun still sitting in Laura’s purse. He spikes the punch at the JIVE ass club. Drunken fun ensues, and the squares even manage a jitterbug. Of course, the sound of joy means the cops come to shut it down.
Some more filler as we watch Laura and Al listen to a crooner that would embarrass Michigan J Frog. Meanwhile, one of Al’s cronies lures Katy into Al’s empty house, telling her that Laura is waiting for her there. Unsurprisingly, Al’s BFF is also what the parlance of the time would call a “masher”, and that I would call “deserving of a solid kick in the balls”.
Square jaw class president comes to save the day with some shadowboxing, followed by a perturbed Al and Laura. The exertion disrupts his Brylcreemed coif, but he manages to get both sisters out of the apartment.
Mr. White finally noticed his girls were missing, and Katy’s insurance salesman of a boyfriend gets a dressing down for the lateness of the hour and the proof of the booze.
The girls go to bed, and their usual bickering devolves into a catfight. In full coverage, borderline union suit style pajamas. This somewhat defeats the purpose of including a catfight that isn’t remotely necessary to the plot.
We’re coming in hot on the last of the runtime, and it won’t take much to resolve the main plot. Here comes the filler, where a girl we’ve seen for maybe 30 seconds in the whole film, gets a feature turn as a teen that attempts to attempt suicide for the guilt of imbibing. Dame Policewoman saves her with a lecture, and wore her best tissue ruffle tear absorbent blouse.
She then has a roundtable discussion with all of the “good kids” about how its their civic duty to snitch on the person who had the shitty taste to bother making White Russians out of all possible cocktails. The JIVE club must reopen to provide “congenial social gathering places” for the youth to learn to eventually become good providers and happy housewives.
Girls like Laura who like glamour, excitement or the remotest possibility of sexual agency? If all girls were like them, “there wouldn’t be any homes!”.
Speaking of, Laura has dressed up in her best imitation of a frontier madam to run away from home for good, another one of Daddy’s bank guarding guns in her bag. If this caper doesn’t make that Al Simpson marry her, NOTHING will!
No one notices for quite a while, as the earth shattering revelation that it was likely SOMEONE OLD ENOUGH TO BUY LIQUOR that spiked the punch is reverberating in the goody two shoes and useless authority figure community.
As for Daddy? He’s too busy ripping Katy’s Milquetoast McHearthrob a new one, again. In a brilliant(-ly stupid) countermove, Potato Salad With Raisins asks for Katy’s hand in marriage.
Then and only then do they notice Laura’s hastily scrawled note on a paper grocery bag. Mr. White, being consistently characterized, complains immediately at the waste of time and money it was trying to educate her feeble femmechild mind, and he once again harrumphs off to the living room to contemplate female uselessness and smoke cigars.
Surprising no one…..Al reveals he had no intention of marrying Laura…….
…..but Laura finally lives up to that ridiculous hat and pulls the gun on Simpson to make it clear, wedding bells or ambulance sirens…….
……luckily Katy and Mr. Suave Sweatervest arrive in the nick of time…….
….only to find Katy passed out on the floor from the shock of none of this having sweet fuck all to do with her……
…..which explains all of her melodramatic swooning in the opener.
Once Mrs. Policewoman hands Laura, Al, and his flunky over to the jail wardens, she delivers quite the dressing down to Mr. White. Is it because of his blatant neglect of his own kids? The fact that not 1 but 2 unsecured guns got stolen out of his household? That he is clearly the worst security guard on the planet? His unbridled disdain for women?
Nope. She lectures him on his lack of understanding of modern youth, who need good clean social entertainments in addition to home life, in order for delinquency tragedies like this not to happen. What qualifies as a good, clean social entertainment? You guessed it. Her god damned milk bar.
Cut to credits on a cautionary tale that may as well have been brought to you by the Dairy Farmers of America and the local 4H. Milk, milk, lemonade….on Poverty Row the fudge is made.
This week’s Monster Munch is a special edition round up of my coverage of May’s virtual Chattanooga Film Fest 2020 for the lovelies at Wicked Horror, full of sneak peek reviews of upcoming genre focused titles. As always you can always chat with me in the comments or on Twitter.
Homewrecker– This fast and funny dark comedy stars Precious Chong and Alex Essoe as fast friends who find themselves fighting to the death when one of them spirals into obsessive territory. An updated piece of hagsploitation for the MTV generation, it was my favorite of the festival, and is currently in wide release on VOD.
Jumbo– Portrait Of A Lady On Fire‘s Noémie Merlant stars in this Zoe Wittrock directed arthouse love story. It just happens to be a love story between a young girl and a carnival ride. A visually lush take, loosely based on real life stories of objectum sexuality.
Attack Of The Demons– Director/Animator Eric Power and writer Andreas Petersen deliver a love letter to horror with this gorgeous hand cut animated film. Three friends back in their rural home town for a music festival are suddenly tasked with saving the world when a mysterious cult unleashed demonic forces. If South Park and TheEvil Dead had a love child, it would likely look like this animated horror-comedy
Killer Queen– Ramin Fahrenheit’s shot on Super 8 homage to grindhouse grittiness unfortunately apes a lot of the flaws of the low budget seediness it so lovingly homages. That said, the careful care in the callbacks and an amazing musical score make this flick oddly transfixing for hard genre lovers.
Bruno Mattei was the Xerox of exploitation cinema. Whatever style of movie was popular at the time, he could direct a facsimile faster, more cheaply, and usually in worse taste. Women in prison flicks, Nazisploitation, Nunsploitation, nothing was too sacred to shamelessly rip off in his nearly 40 year career. If it was making bank, he was making a copy as close as budget and copyright law allowed.
While the trailer above plays as if Rats: Night Of Terror is a tension fueled creature feature, the actual movie “borrows” more from Mad Max and Escape From New York than it does post atomic age giant animal romps like The Food Of The Gods.
As a cost effective text crawl tells us, 225 years post nuclear apocalypse, the affluent live in comfortable underground cities, and leave the fallout filled surface to ragtag groups of neo primitives. The protagonists roll up on their motorcycles, and all 11 of them appear to be dressed for a different movie.
The leader favors a kicky little red scarf, but anything goes, as the others are dressed in everything from camo to leather vests. Inexplicably, one of the women is apparently riding out the post apocalypse in a Frederick’s Of Hollywood teddy and a costume shop vampire cape.
We don’t learn most of their names until MUCH later in the film, but it sounds like they were all chosen in an odd game of “I, Spy”, with grown adults walking around calling each other things like Video, Chocolate, Lucifer, Deus, Lillith and……Myrna. Between the muddy audio, and the group’s tendency to squabble, the clothes are the easier method to tell everyone apart anyway.
Our gang of ragtag ramblers stumbles upon a building that has an incredibly well stocked bunker underneath it, with a hydroponic garden, plentiful food supplies and a water purifier. Unfortunately, it also contains some corpses so fresh they are still decomposing and an epic rat infestation.
Despite mounting evidence that something is very wrong, the gang is far too preoccupied doing things that are offensive, stupid, or so stupid that they become offensive. From getting stuck during sleeping bag sex and a host of highly questionable jokes to gleefully barricading themselves into a room without water, food or medical supplies, it’s a minor miracle this group managed to survive a street crossing. Never mind the apocalypse.
Literal buckets of rats are tossed on the actors from just outside of the frame, but this doesn’t ever translate to much suspense or gore. Even the rats spend the majority of their screen time indifferently scurrying off into a corner to attempt to clean their fur from whatever gunk production tossed on them for greasy effect. That said, being that we spend 90 minutes watching the humans cry, flail and fail spectacularly, it doesn’t seem that implausible that a bunch of bored mutant rats could successfully pick them off one by one.
By the time the film takes a turn for The Crazies, in a swirl of fumigator fog and ooky spooky organ music straight out a carnival dark ride, the characters (and most viewers) are at their wits’ end with a film that has clearly overstayed its grimy welcome. Hang in for the last 5 minutes, as the final twist is so gleefully nonsensical, it almost makes the hour and a half slog to get there worth it.
Herschell Gordon Lewis (and to a lesser degree, his production partner David Friedman) was perhaps exploitation’s greatest slinger of bullshit and ballyhoo. While he had some moderate success with teen trouble tales and nudie cuties, he knew he would need something else to stand out in a crowded field of shot on the fly films competing for attention at grindhouses and drive ins. With the free vomit bags and faux moral outrage marketing campaign of 1963’s Blood Feast, Herschell Gordon Lewis had found his offal covered calling card.
What he did not have the skill or inclination to offer in terms of technical acumen or production values could be covered over by layers of tinted gelatin grue in vivid color. Lewis had invented the modern splatter film and a cash cow that managed to make over 100 times its modest production budget. He spent roughly the next decade trying to top himself in the new niche he had created, with varying degrees of success.
By 1972, Herschell Gordon Lewis had seen a host of other film makers run right through the doors he had opened for blood and brutality at the cinema. While his films’ shoestring budgets had always kept them quite profitable, they were no longer shocking. The Gore Gore Girls had the unfortunate luck of being released a few weeks after Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left, and the film was made passé almost overnight. Seeing the writing on the wall, Lewis took a 30 year hiatus from film making, focusing on his (unsurprisingly) successful career in marketing, where he was considered one of the godfathers of the direct advertising field. Without further preamble, 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls:
The pre credits are pretty brief. We get a few shots of a woman fixing her hair, then a gloved hand reaches out and repeatedly smashes the unnamed victim’s head into the mirror.
In addition to the groovy color scheme of the credits and title card, we also get an expositional newspaper page that reveals the deceased was an exotic dancer who used the stage name Suzie Creampuff, but her REAL name was Ethel Creampuff. Not exactly a master of disguise, that one. The fact that the faux paper’s headline ISN’T some variant of Headless Girl In Topless Bar also seems a missed opportunity.
Cut to the paper label maker marked office of Abraham Gentry (one film wonder Frank Kress) , private detective, who locks his cat in the cabinet(?) as he finally deigns to answer the knocking.
The fetching redhead behind the door is reporter Nancy Weston (Amy Farrell). Inexplicably, her employers at the Globe newspaper are willing to pay $25,000 to Abe if he helps crack the case of the murdered stripper before the police, and hands Nancy a juicy scoop.
Even more inexplicably, Nancy finds Abe to be just as juicy, and flirts shamelessly with him, despite the fact that he looks like the human embodiment of spilling an overflowing ashtray onto a shag carpet.
This sets us up for the structure of pretty much the rest of the movie. Strippers strip, Abe is obnoxious by virtue of existing, and lacking goodwill, his main investigative skill comes into play. He pays cash for the answers to his questions.
It’s actually good that the plot beats are somewhat repetitive, because the lighting never much improves.
Speaking with Suzie’s coworker, Abe buys his first obvious red herring lead, a customer who had a bit of a white knight complex.
Too bad it just leads to another outlay of cash and the body of another victim. This one had her face sliced off with a cleaver, but you’d be hard pressed to tell what the hell is going on given that second still. It’s dark, butcher scraps were involved, don’t quote me on what the hell body part the pile of dim grue is supposed to be.
Abe and the responding police officer have a solid good old boy yuk yuk over how petty and ineffectual they are in refusing to coordinate investigations. Odd tinny stock music funeral marches, a rejected ode for Sousa’s band, some pseudo surf rock and some Folger’s Crystals commercial jazz (a well known sound to those familiar with Doris Wishman) drift in and out of the scenes on the screen at random.
A new stripper strips, we get a goofy speeded up sequence of the staff making some 4 tequila shot abomination for an unsuspecting Nancy, and the bartender gets paid to answer some questions about a guy who is literally sitting right behind him.
At least Abe had the sense to shout nudity in a crowded strip club, clearing the way for some bribery. The latest stale herring is a bouncer named Grout who likes to draw faces on fruits, then smash them with his bare hands. For hours. In a crowded strip club. Because that is a thing that happens at your place of employment.
We are now a full third of the way through this movie, and nothing has changed aside from Nancy’s sobriety level, and the fact that Abe has taken to breaking the fourth wall and addressing “witty” little asides straight at the camera.
The break of the fourth wall was a tilt into the sort of black comedy you sometimes see pop up in prolific horror directors’ later career. After years of battling decency leagues, censors and lots of questions about the level of latent misogyny in gore films, the director in question attempts to go all the way over the top on satirical dark comedy. You want bad taste? They’ll show you bad taste all right.
While the deaths get more daffily bizarre and Abe’s mansplaining about town gets more face punch inducing, making anti porn feminists another potential red herring is the only parody barb that kind of hits its intended target.
Yet another stripper is about to peel her business casual gear, but gets interrupted by a large group of first wave anti porn feminists holding placards demanding everyone “Quit With Tit” because “Lewd Is Crude”.
A brawl ensues between the pro sex work dancers/patrons and the “liberated” protestors, and I’m grateful for the interruption in routine.
Abe pours drunk Nancy into a cab, and questions the sensible sportswear stripper at her apartment. Shortly after he leaves, she gets her throat slit while suggestively holding a cucumber, then the killer finishes the job with a meat tenderizing mallet and a liberal sprinkle of salt and pepper. That’s not a typo, nor a metaphor, actual table spices are used.
Gentry sends the cops on a wide goose chase with a story regarding the killer’s made up religious motive. He bribes someone else to do some lab work, and we just wasted 15 minutes on an overelaborate circle back to the previous scene. Those damn meddling women’s libbers are next on the suspect list.
Meanwhile, the killer has a few more dancers to bump off in over the top nonsensical ways that aren’t even anatomically possible. Throats are slit, faces are ironed, removal of nipples makes a fountain of both regular and chocolate milk (ALSO NOT A TYPO). A roommate comes home and meets her demise in a pan of hot french fry grease.
So many cheap rubber casts and wax melts. Told you H.G. Lewis would end up swinging for the lunatic fences.
The cops continue to bumble, the film is now 60 minutes in, and we still don’t know much more than we did when we started.
Marz doesn’t have much wisdom to impart in regards to the murders, but tells Abe he’s having an amateur night strip contest, with a $1000 prize to attempt to restaff/revitalize the clubs. His staff is getting bumped off faster than he can hire them.
There’s some minor plot dithering as Abe pays a dialog free visit to his friend the lady wrestler, and Nancy goes undercover with the women’s liberation group. At last, it’s the night of the big strip contest, where a suspicious number of “amateurs” seem to have bedazzled g strings beneath their day dresses.
Marlene the waitress still loathes Abe, who is busily getting Nancy hammered again, so she’ll enter the contest.
Full of tequila and jealousy over Abe admiring another girl, Nancy does enter and win, but we see little more than her hair and her knees as the crowd hoots and hollers their approval of her striptease.
Throughly wasted, Abe takes Nancy back to her apartment, where she falls asleep on the couch almost immediately. Soon a familiar shadow looms over her……revealing the killer to be…….
……Marlene, who supposedly is severely burn scarred. She killed because she was jealous of the dancers’ beauty and place in Marz’s affections. In reality, its clear it’s nothing more than a wonky bald cap, and her hair is CLEARLY visible in back. Abe runs Marlene off………
…..where she promptly gets hit by a car and ground into another pile of unrecognizable butcher scraps. While Abe does provide an explanation of how he knew who the killer was, most of the events happened off screen, and I’m certainly not sure what “a gesture only a lady wrestler would use” would be even if I DID see it.
Despite Abe trying to alcohol poison her on multiple occasions and nearly getting her murdered, Nancy STILL wants to sleep with him. Abe breaks the fourth wall one last time, admonishes us that we have “seen enough” and physically pulls down the “curtains” on both the film, and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ golden age as a filmmaker.
Crunch, crunch, munch, munch…..on all of the tasty bits and pieces of genre film goodness I’ve written for other sites around the web. The request line of recommendations is always open. Cult cinema converts can find me on Twitter or come chat in the comments below!
In an era littered with unscrupulous producers and distributors who hijacked both finished products and profits from filmmakers, Ganja & Hess is the rare inverse case. Director Bill Gunn received financing to make a budget conscious cash in on the success of Blacula. Instead, Gunn used the funds to turn out a film that has more in common with the “New Hollywood” arthouse inflected movement than Blaxploitation tropes.
Wealthy anthropologist Hess Green (Duane Jones) is attacked by his suicidal research assistant, George Meda (director Bill Gunn) with an ancient African ceremonial dagger. The dagger carries a disease that gives the infected near eternal life, and an unceasing thirst for human blood. When George’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark), comes to the estate looking for her deceased husband, she instead joins Hess in both marriage and his cursed state (though not his personal ideologies).
It’s a slight plot, but the pretext of vampirism allows for a dizzying array of allegory and subtextual commentary on the nature of addiction, Black assimilation in America, and the hypocrisy of Christianity. It’s a shimmering shape shifter of a film to begin with, doubly so for those prone to analysis, and I’ve done a previous deep dive of the movie’s thematic elements right here.
The visuals and sound further the fever dream, with title cards and tilted angles joining lushly shot runs through sun dappled fields, and queasy, almost POV style kills. Sam Waymon’s score burbles both underneath and on top of the dialog, African chants, church hymns and a narrative soul croon given equal weight to the words being spoken by the characters. The cut and paste, collaged aesthetic is both disorienting and deliberate.
The disappointed producers of the film quickly pulled it from distribution for a hatchet job of a recut/retitling(Blood Couple), despite it winning a prestigious prize at that year’s Cannes film festival. Ganja & Hess has very little to do with the easy to sell Blaxploitation conventions that they were hoping for. There are no oversized heroes or easy villains, no action sequences, no clever catchphrases or catchy theme tunes.
Instead, just a slow, purposeful introspection. For all of the larger questions Ganja & Hess raises, there’s no easy catharsis to any of them, no through line of linear narrative, right and wrong. Just two characters, and how they individually navigate their status as othered outsiders, even before you factor in the newly found bloodlust.
*Note from your Midnight Movie Monster: There’s a bit of a break from my usual tone from this post, which marks the end of my break from regular updates(which will continue on their usual schedule from here on out). With the pandemic and the protests against racism and police brutality still ongoing, I took some time off and focused on being useful to the larger issues at hand, rather than cracking wise about B cinema.
Usually, I reserve bite size pieces for films of lesser merits, but this film is actually one of my absolute favorites of the grindhouse golden age, and an excellent piece of arthouse horror. I just wrote it up as a bite size piece being that I had previously covered it for an outside venue.
What do you get when you mix a television journeyman, a frustrated soap opera pretty boy, an aging rock star, and a former Prince protege?
Never Too Young To Die, a Gil Bettman directed action comedy to update spies for the rad kids of the Reagan era, penned by the same twisted mind that would later produce the truly execrable Baby Geniuses.
While the film received a limited theatrical run and a home video release, both flopped. The movie held on briefly in syndication before vanishing for several decades into the recess of VHS only curios. Content to let sleeping dogs lie, no one bothered to exhume Never Too Young To Die for DVD/Blu Ray release until 2017.
Let’s get this totally tubular tale of the teenage spy who loved Vanity over with:
The cold open of this 1986 misfire is a herd of lost extras from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, chanting in support of their glorious leader, gender bending Ragnar (Gene Simmons). For the record, that name is not a keysmash or a typo. Clearly, production was aiming for a glam rock and roll nightmare, but the practical result is a puffy mess who clearly ate the whole pack of Frank N. Futers. As Ragnar struts and shrieks some nonsense about “little turdballs”, and poisoning the city water supply, even the fan club down below looks confused.
A critical disk of information needed for this overly elaborate poisoning plan is missing. One of the female crustpunks is a traitor. As she is bound to a prop cross, we get a truly disturbing scene where the crowd chants for Ragnar to give the double agent “the finger”. As Gene Simmons licks glossed lips and raises a dirty acrylic coke nail, we mercifully cut to credits. NO ONE needed to see exactly where that was going.
Enter Lance Stargrove (John Stamos), a teen gymnastics champ at a weird high school that apparently has dorms. He’s got a cheery theme song, big hair, and a stereotype of a best friend named Cliff, who only exists to spit computer jargon and build literal plot devices. Well, plot devices other than those that were already stolen from The Goonies and Gymkata.
It isn’t all sunshine and sweatbands for Lance. His mom is dead, and his dad is going to miss the big gymnastics meet, AGAIN. Best to photogenically brood about it. Stupid dad having a stupid mysterious job.
While he sulks, we cut to Lance’s father James Bond, Drew Stargrove. Stargrove the elder is played by George Lazenby. Lazenby is best known for being the guy who keeps Timothy Dalton from being the least popular Bond actor.
Mr. Stargrove is doing top level espionage for Roto Rooter, but the job goes badly sideways due to a defector in the ranks and some “C4” that looks and adheres like kneaded eraser. Ragnar makes short work of an injured Mr. Stargrove after some boring squabbling over the missing disc for the water poisoning plot. In a psychic link between father and estranged son, Lance bungles the big tumble tournament and lands with a thud at the same moment his dad dies of his own ineptitude. Kismet.
At the funeral, a bundle of dear old dad’s not at all secret agent “associates” show up, including Danja Deering (Vanity), wearing one of the leftover costumes from the Vanity 6 album tour. Lance being Lance, he has a tantrum about his dad ever having known a good looking woman in even the most mysterious of capacities. He sulks his way through a pile of dry as kindling exposition with the one scene wonder family lawyer.
Lance is now independently wealthy, and the owner of his father’s farm/ personal retreat, which he didn’t realize had ever existed. Again, best to sit in the backseat of the limo and photogenically brood about it.
Speaking of the farm, Lance decides to visit, just as Ragnar’s club wielding henchman interrupt Danja’s horseback riding with demands for the missing disc. The barn doubles as an armory, and is blown up in the scuffle despite Ragnar’s goons not having a single modern weapon. Vanity loses the gun she brought to a blunt instrument fight, and the grenade box thoughtfully stored beneath the saddles lights the whole structure up like kindling when the side of beef above struggles to keep control of a semi automatic.
Danja sustains a small wound on the arm, which inexplicably requires her to take off the frilly blouse she nicked from Prince’s closet. Lance is unharmed, but….you guessed it…..proceeds to photogenically brood about it. Vanity’s expression in the still up there pretty much sums up my feelings toward this entire sequence. Whatever secret agency these characters are from is the bottom of the can of dollar store alphabet soup.
Okay, so we’re going to pause a moment here. Another mystery man comes to retrieve Vanity from the farm, and they have a debrief about the obvious misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the phrase “barn raising”. When she mentions the culprit being Ragnar’s henchmen, our ersatz G man replies “The hermaphrodite?” in an incredulous tone.
1. It is a third of the way through the movie, and this bizarre plot point was felt to be of enough merit to be shoehorned in, apropos of absolutely fuck all. 2. That terminology was not a good look even in 1986. 3. The mid 80’s were an unfortunate boom time for casual homophobia in films. 4. Why is Ragnar’s gender identity or physiology more important that the fact that her crew is planning to poison an entire city’s water supply, and has already committed murder? It’s not. But the entire rest of the movie will repeatedly harp on it because of point #3. 5. Velvet Von Ragnar refers to herself as she in the scene that follows this one, and so will I.
Danja heads off to catch Velvet Von Ragnar’s nightclub act. Lance follows along like a puppy, because he wants to prove he can do big kid stuff aside from brood and sulk.
As far as the actual performance? Gene Simmons had a career as a professional musician for over a decade at this stage, and manages not to sing, dance, speak or walk in anything resembling the same time signature as the beat.
The costume is borrowed from the 1980 Linda Carter ENCORE! TV special, and Gene mainly just wobbles around the stage shrieking like Dr. Rockso’s grandparent. Should you be a masochist, but not so much of one as to watch this entire movie, some of the vocals from this sequence were recycled for the 1992 KISS song “Spit”.
Another homophobic conversation is had. Danja leaves, slapping Lance for implying she’s a star(grove) fucker. Lance attempts to go undercover as a fan of Velvet’s to place one of his BFF’s handy bubble gum trackers in her dressing room.
Surprising no one, Lance fails miserably. Velvet flushes the tracker down the toilet. Lance gets his ass kicked outside of the bar, and manages to nearly get blown up when his motorcycle explodes.
This doesn’t stop him from borrowing poor Cliff’s motorbike to go chase Danja, as he adhered the other bubble gum tracker to her car. As usual, he gets in the way of Danja’s escape from more of Velvet’s post apocalyptic errand bitches, nearly gets himself shot, and does absolutely nothing to prevent the goons from capturing her in their fishing net of doom.
Meanwhile, the henchmen drag Lance back to his father’s farmhouse, and whip him until he cries. At roughly an hour into this film, our supposed hero has done little more than pout, sulk and get beaten up by shitty roller derby characters looking for dated computer technology.
But by the power of the cheap badge that the set dresser dredged up from a local plaque and trophy shop, Lance finally finds his footing. The gnashing of teeth for “intensity” and a theme song reprise…..THAT’S his ninja way. Defenestration fu saves the day, and Lance’s reputation as a completely ineffectual idiot. Now he’s just a mostly ineffectual idiot.
Turns out that stupid tchochke is a quest item, as when Lance fumbles putting it back onto his necklace, it rolls into a glowing groove in the floor. Once activated, there’s a little super spy Narnia underneath the bed. Like an onion, this farm. So many layers.
Seeing his dad’s trophy room of awards and accomplishments gives Lance the confidence to pick up a handgun as he sees a figure in motocross gear entering the house. Lance still being a moron, he almost shoots poor Cliff. Cliff came by with both a brand new motorbike and a custom designed flamethrower, because plot device. He also mentions that the disc Lance’s dad had sent before all this started just happened to be inside a specially built compartment inside of Cliff’s new bike. Funny that Lance almost killed the person that has the one thing everyone in the film wants, and that Cliff didn’t mention having it until just now.
Fuck it, whatever, lets see how the homemade flamethrower plays into Danja’s rescue.
Blah, blah, blah overly elaborate villain plot.
How in the hell did Robert Englund end up in this only semi polished turd? He’s wonderful as always, in a bit role as a tech dork named Riley.
Velvet kills the previous two henchman as punishment for their failure to retrieve the disc. At least they call the dirty coke nail “the spike” rather than “the finger” this time. 50% less nightmare inducing.
Move along, nothing else to see in this scene.
Lance and Cliff make like a bad album cover as they fight fire…..with fire. Danja is rescued from yet another overly elaborate crematorium of doom type villain mechanism, and everyone debriefs in what looks like a church basement or a shipping container. The entire water poisoning plot everyone has been talking about the entire film has to be rehashed again for the secret agent bigwigs, who decide Lance and Danja……should sit at the farmhouse and wait.
Hear that sound? It’s the plot grinding to a near standstill in the final stretch.
At the house, Lance and Danja have a weird combination of flirtation and argument, with semi love confessions and suspicions of double crossers in their own ranks mixed with the insufferably pouty Lance brooding over the fact that a beautiful woman has decided she wants to sleep with him. I was going to complain about how long this scene drags on, but for time killing filler, you could do far worse than circa 1986 Vanity stepping in and out of a bikini.
The editing of the actual sex scene is bizarre with moody sax sprinkled throughout the oddly jumpy visual cuts. Apparently, I’m the only one who remembers that this is a mission, with a full crew of spies chilling at the top of the hill with high powered binoculars. Whatever, I won’t yuck someone else’s yum.
Lance and Ganja get airlifted out of the house while lookalikes take their place. Maybe because the lookalikes will get actual spy stuff done rather than having kinky sex. However, the helicopter pilot isn’t Agent Carruthers, but instead is a disguised Ragnar. This transition is one step above Scooby and those meddling kids pulling the rubber mask off the villain at the end of the episode, proving once again that Danja and company are the worst spies ever.
Ragnar drags them back to his dust bowl hide out, which is pretty much run like a nuclear winter Medieval Times. Ragnar demands a toast from her throne, Danja and Lance are pelted with rotted food as they are dragged out in a cage, and John Stamos gets into some awkward territory challenging the big side of bacon main henchman to a duel to see who is a “real man”.
The real spies show up in rescue helicopters, and Ragnar runs with Riley the tech nerd, the disc she had her henchman steal from Cliff’s bike, and a nuclear football like suitcase. Lots of filler shots of the good guys mowing down extras ensue as Ragnar makes her break for it.
With the poisoning device armed and a 3 minute countdown, Lance manages to catch up to Ragnar for what is (thankfully) their last standoff on a municipal aqueduct. Some is this precious time is wasted with yet another inane homophobic conversation about who is a “real man” or “real woman” and other such tripe. Because John Stamos and his 45 minute blow dried and moussed coif is the height of butch masculinity. It’s the femme person in the corset that’s bad. Some dumb shit like that. I stopped listening for the sake of the 14 brains cells I had not yet killed with booze while watching this film.
Lance is such a cocky little shit, its oddly satisfying to see Ragnar take a hearty swing at his head with a tire iron as she calls him a pathetic little boy. In fact, she’s well on her way to kicking his ass until he goes for the cheap shot of biting her boob. Some super tough super spy he is. As one cheap turn deserves another, Ragnar gets in a slash with her infamous coke nail.
They continue their chicken fight on the ground, and the detonator says that only about 30 seconds have elapsed, despite this eating up several minutes of screentime. Vanity catches up in the chopper, Cliff’s homemade flamethrower at the ready rather than the plethora of real weapons her employers supplied.
It’s that time again….Monster Munch is all of the bits and pieces of horror news and reviews I’ve written for other sites around the web. Have a recommendation? Find my taste questionable? So do I! Find me on Twitter or in the comments, and tell me all about it below the fold.
Retro VHS Rewind: Alice, Sweet Alice: A look back at this 1976 cult classic tale of slashers and sibling rivalry, that has one of the creepiest masks in all of horror, and an appearance from a very young Brooke Shields.
Book Review: The Flock Of Ba-Hui And Other Stories What happens when you take cosmic horror out of the hands of a chronically ill racist, and put it in the hands of genre writers from the burgeoning Chinese underground? As it turns out, a surprisingly fast paced collection of lovingly created pastiche.