Freejack (1992)

Freejack

This review of Freejack contains spoilers.

Mostly forgotten now, Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II)’s 1992 SF-action turkey Freejack got some attention back on its release for starring the one and only Mick Jagger. And as a twelve year old at the time the film was getting premiered on Sky’s movie channels, I was certainly interested in it because I thought the ads looked good, plus anything futuristic was always going to fascinate me after having been bowled over by Back to the Future Part II on the big screen a few years earlier. Unfortunately (or so I thought), those movie channels were out of our price range so I forgot about Freejack until it was premiered on BBC1 a few years later.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h39m16s600

By then I had become more aware that the film was meant to be… how can I put it… a bit shit, so I geared myself up for a bumpy ride of some sorts. I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, it’s awful, but from the moment Jagger’s bounty hunter/’bonejacker’ Victor Vacendak lifts up the future-visor on his head and says, in that unmistakable camp London accent of his, ‘Okay… let’s do it! I knew I was going to love this film.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h38m02s479

I had the foresight to tape Freejack at the time and made a point of rewatching it over and over again. Well, the good bits anyway. Bits of this film are really dull. But the good bits (and by that I mean the really bad bits) were pure comedy gold.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h42m52s870

Based on Robert Sheckley’s novel Immortality, Inc. (more on that later), Freejack is set in a future where advancements in technology have made it possible for a mind to be transplanted into another human body. Meanwhile in present-day 1992,  hot shot racing driver Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is apparently killed mid-race when his car explodes in front of his adoring fans, his adoring girlfriend Julie (Rene Russo) and his adoring agent (David Johansen from the New York Dolls!). However, he’s not really dead because he re-materialises in the year 2009, surrounded by baddies in bacofoil who are ready to lobotomise him with a freaky laser. Luckily, Furlong escapes into a dystopia where people are either living at the top in sleek, plush surroundings or at the bottom where the only things to eat are rats or soup that’s so tasty that people are willing to kill you if you spill it all over them.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h39m22s495

Furlong realises that he’s now a ‘freejack’, a fugitive wanted for his BODY by a mystery party. Everyone he turns to for help either betrays him or slams the door in his face, except for a gun-toting nun, aka Mother Exposition, played by Amanda Plummer a few years before she threatened to execute every motherfuckin’ person in the Big Kahuna burger joint in Pulp Fiction. It turns out there’s a thing called the Spiritual Switchboard, which is a kind of cloud where human minds can be uploaded and then downloaded into a different body. Furlong’s body appears to be hot property because it comes from a time before something called the Ten Year Depression and isn’t contaminated with all the toxins, poisons and mutations that today’s underclass have been exposed to. Ah, but why doesn’t Furlong’s mystery party just take his pick of a body from 2009’s non-toxic cultural elite?

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h44m30s747

Nope, it’s got to be Furlong, and the one who wants him is none other than Anthony Hopkins, who I forgot to mention in this review so far because he didn’t make much impression on the plot up until now. I’m sure he made an impression on viewers at the time – this was the first film he’d made after his award-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs. This was not the first instance of an actor starring in a total turkey immediately after their Oscar win, and it wouldn’t be the last. It turns out his character in this – the mysterious and recently deceased tycoon McCandless who owns everything in the future and therefore was always untrustworthy – has fallen in love with Julie and of course the only way to win over someone who’s already attached is to possess the body of her boyfriend!

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h46m40s934

The ending was clearly this was meant to be the Ultimate Trip, the kind that would leave Kubrick whimpering. Forget 2001, this was 2009, baby! This is where Furlong and Julie enter the Spiritual Switchboard, past loads of pixels, squares, time lapse skies and altering environments, culminating in a confrontation with McCandless, who seems to be able to smoke cigars in this virtual world – how does that work? – and who also suspiciously appears to have regretted his rash decision to try and nab Furlong’s body, offering to give everything to him, his riches, his job as an apology … but we know it’s all lies and stalling, as Vacendak shows up and Furlong still ends up undergoing the old switcheroo in a sequence of, and let’s be generous, rather funny special effects that includes a trippy flashback nightmare that, like all bad dream/hallucination sequences, features not one but two random bits of people laughing wickedly.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h49m04s171

Weasely deputy villain Michelette (Jonathan Banks), who doesn’t want McCandless in any form to survive as that would prevent him from inheriting the company, destroys the transfer device and we’re all left wondering which mind is currently occupying the disoriented body of Furlong. Michelette has the right idea – if whoever this guy is can correctly identify McCandless’ personal security clearance number then he’s obviously the real deal. The thing is, he actually can! It must be McCandless, god damned McCandless! Michelette shakes his head in despair, laughs to himself and attempts to go out in a blaze of glory before being instantly gunned down by Vacendak.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-20h50m34s920

So Furlong’s dead, right? No. He was just guessing the security number and Vacendak went along with it because, let’s face it, nobody likes Michelette. Furlong’s a bit of a twat about it though, not telling Julie what’s happened until we the viewer also got to find out, which was a bit mean of him, stringing her along like that for what must have felt like a long few minutes. So, Furlong assures Julie that everything’s going to be alright and off they drive. In fact, his specific final line is ‘Come on, buckle up, let’s see what this baby can do!’ which is a line almost as cheesy as the one in this clip:

Haul Ass to Lollapalooza!

Cue anthemic metal from whistle-friendly favourites the Scorpions and roll those credits. Terrible ending. Saying that ‘Hit Between the Eyes’ is a fun song. I remember hearing the guitar squeals over that old Sky ad for the movie and I remember thinking this film was going to be ace.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h36m00s293

So, what we have here is a film that was probably the last attempt to make Emilio Estevez an action star, but he’s just not well served by the direction or the script. Also, he just doesn’t convey enough of the overwhelmed mind-scramble of what it would be like to be in a new time. Even though the Estevez smirk is almost as good a thing as the Bruce Willis smirk, he’s just too cocky here for us to really care too much. We also have future Breaking Bad legend Jonathan Banks in the role of Michelette, and compared to the dry, been-there-done-that persona of Mike Ehrmentraut, his character here is entertainingly obnoxious, stressed-out and seemingly despised by everybody. The scene where Jagger crushes a Faberge egg and chucks it over to him whilst calling him an asshole is one of the funniest in the film. Banks and Hopkins get the play-it-straight-but-chew-the-scenery-at-the-same-time thing beautifully, which can’t be said for Estevez and Russo. There’s little to no chemistry between the two, which makes their potentially thrilling, 16-year overdue catch-up a little flat. To be fair, the tragedy of their extended separation isn’t helped by the bit just as Furlong ‘dies’ when the camera rapidly zooms into Julie’s face – it’s hilarious. I think even Warners/Morgan Creek realised it was funny as early as 1993, because Brad Pitt’s waster character in True Romance is watching that exact same moment on the telly.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h45m06s380

But never mind that.

Let’s talk about Mick Jagger.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h26m16s148

Now I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan. I love their sixties stuff, I love their seventies stuff and I even like some of their eighties stuff. And I love Mick Jagger. What a frontman. I mean, there’s precious few like him. Yet there’s always been something kind of hilarious about him too. It’s that preening, camp, lip-smacking sense of mischief, right there even from the start. Like David Bowie, Nicolas Roeg found something intrinsically cinematic about him and both of them enjoyed their best big-screen performances under his wing. However, unlike Bowie, Jagger didn’t really have much of a film career afterwards. I’m not saying Bowie was a screen legend, but he also had The Hunger, Labyrinth and The Prestige among others under his belt, whereas Jagger had few other roles of note. There was Ned Kelly, and then there was Freejack.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h23m19s760

I love Jagger in this film – he can’t really act but he does his individual thing and he does it very entertainingly. As I’ve already mentioned, his very first line is a classic of camp delivery, but pretty much everything he says here has this kind of delightful amusement to it. How the hell do nothing lines like ‘power it up’ and ‘he’s good’, both uttered by him in the opening race sequence, end up being so gigglesome? It’s all in the execution. His best extended sequence outside of the Faberge bit is the chase scene involving the ugliest and reddest tank in history. Furlong has escaped in a car/champagne crate and Vacendak and crew are in hot pursuit. Using some kind of bluetooth connection to tap into Furlong’s car, he starts pestering his quarry throughout the car chase, and even though Furlong tries to hang up on him (leading Vacendak to hilariously exclaim ‘Oh no! I hate the dark!’) he just won’t go away. He laughs like a madman, delivers lines like ‘you can’t get rid of me that easily!’ ‘I want him without a scccraaatch!’ and ‘the brake pedal’s the one on the right’ and of course ‘DON’T DO IT!!!!’ with the kind of relish someone who actually gets paid a lot of money to say this stuff does.

MMRTLNC1959

So what about the book that Freejack was based on? I wasn’t expecting Robert Sheckley’s 1958 Immortality, Inc. to be so entertaining, but it really is a proper tear-through ride of a novel that is crammed with ideas and twists. Okay, the female characters get short shrift, but for the most part it’s great. To be honest, to adapt it faithfully might have made for a pretty crammed feature-length film, but compromises could nevertheless have been made and we could have got a striking, spectacular SF experience.

When you come down to it, Freejack is mostly a lot of chases, fights and shoot outs, only really going into overdrive (some would say for the worse) for its finale. Immortality, Inc. has a lot more fun delving into the future world that Thomas Blaine (not Alex Furlong) has found himself in. At first his arrival into the future is exploited as a publicity gimmick for the Rex Corporation (there’s no McCandless here) who want to show him off as the world’s first person to be snatched from the past and put in a new body, but is soon forgotten by the media and even his own captors once the novelty’s worn off. Instead of being a target for capture, Blaine is more or less stranded in the future in a new body and with no way to make a living… I don’t want to spoil the rest of the novel as it’s a revelation for those only aware of Freejack, but if you do get round to reading it you’ll be dazzled by how much stuff there is here. Then you think about all that could have been accomplished in adapting this novel and you see what was actually made and released in 1992 and it beggars belief. Freejack essentially adapts a tiny portion of the story – the concept of an old mind occupying a younger body and the presence of the Spiritual Switchboard – and scraps the rest. I mean, there were suicide booths in the novel! Why would you not put something like that in the film? There’s merely a small electronic billboard for ‘suicide assistance’ that you can just about make out in a couple of shots. At least Futurama recognised a great (if fucked-up) SF idea when it saw one. It’s frankly insulting to see what they’ve done to the novel. If there are better examples of just how dumb the worst of Hollywood can be in adapting other mediums, then please let me know.

Of course, there was nothing in Immortality, Inc. that was as funny as the shot below, so both have their own individual merits, I suppose.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h13m22s065

PS: Amazingly, one of the co-writers is Dan Gilroy, who would end up directing the terrific Nightcrawler!

PSS: Some of the main characters have alliterative names, like Victor Vacendak and Mark Michelette. Those that don’t are nonetheless played by actors with alliterative names, like Emilio Estevez and Rene Russo. The only exception is Anthony Hopkins as Ian McCandless, but given he had just won an Oscar, I suppose he could get away with it.

PSSS: two non-Jagger highlights from the tank chase scene to mention – the music by Trevor Jones here is really enjoyable, great chase music. And secondly, yes that is a sample of James Brown screaming as a pedestrian jumps out of the way. There’s a few of these in this film, but it wasn’t the first action romp to feature a Brown sample. Raw Deal did it too, spectacularly. Hit me!

PSSSS: Here’s a shot of David Johansen, simply because there hasn’t been one yet in this review.

vlcsnap-2017-05-11-21h43m05s210

 

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 37: You Can’t Take it With You

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h05m11s275

Ah, now this is more like it! I have a very, very special fondness for this one as it was one of the episodes featured in my wonderful and much-cherished copy of The Real Ghostbusters sticker album that I from the late eighties. The stickers for this episode just looked so spectacular (apart from the double-one of Ray and Egon in front of the Containment Unit – that was just okay). That’s not the only reason I love this episode, because for the first time since ‘Ragnarok and Roll’ we actually get an episode with some genuine peril and excitement. You know it’s serious, because Egon’s PKE meter stops working. That’s always bad. It also looks great (foreboding purple skies are a speciality here) and has a pretty cool plot hook. The title kinda gives away the ending, but come on, we never really thought the bad guy would actually win, did we?

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h07m47s540

To begin with, an immense ecto-surge in the city (emanating from one of the local, suspiciously evil looking skyscrapers– remember, there was another one in ‘Ragnarok’) causes the Containment Unit’s alarm bells to go ringing in the middle of the night. Peter doesn’t seem to care – no ghosts have escaped from the unit, so what’s the problem? Egon and Ray rightly know that a non-corporeal rupture of this magnitude is too big a deal to ignore, so it’s time to investigate the cause. And the cause is –

Charles Montgomery Burns.

250px-Charles_Montgomery_Burns

Okay, his name in this episode is Mr. Tummel, but he is essentially a proto-Burnsie. He’s so greedy and obsessed with his money that he has no intention of giving it up even when he dies. He’s going to literally transport his cash and gold to the ghost world when he himself pops his clogs. I’m not even sure Burns has ever tried to pull off a move like that, even in a Halloween special.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h11m24s966

And just like Burns, Tummel doesn’t care about the adverse effects his plan will have on the environment either, firing his assistant when he dares bring up the subject. He scoffs at morality, contracts, the law, the Easter Bunny… wow, this IS Mr. Burns, isn’t it? He doesn’t have any hounds to release though, just a couple of musclebound guards to take out the trash. Unfortunately, by opening the door to the ghost world, Tummel has let loads of swirly-whirly spectres into the physical world. Not that Tummel’s bothered. His chair comes equipped with ‘ecto-shield’ and proton beam! God only knows how he managed to get all this put together, but it looks damned good. I mean, the interiors of his skyscraper are bloomin’ enormous. He has a flippin’ pyramid inside there!

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h12m44s924

The guys enter the building (and in one fancy move, each of them walk into a room using a different door for no other reason than it looking cool), but it’s swarming with ghosts, who for some reason in this episode, leave a cobwebby (but definitely not actual cobweb) residue after they’ve been zapped. This isn’t explained because Peter does one of his standard interruptions on Egon. And the standard reason for his interruption is – who’s paying them for this job? He had the same issue in ‘Beneath These Streets’ if you’ll remember. His preferred plan is to wait until the public call in for them, and then they can get some sweet cash. Of course, time is of the essence, especially since Egon reckons that because of the ghosts’ fragile molecular structure, they could break up into separate, new ghosts, and so on. It’ll only take 15 hours or so for the world to be governed by chaos and what not, so forget the money. Unfortunately, despite racing against the clock, the lifts are not an option, because they look like this:

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h15m53s031

How are they going to get to the top? The stairs? Did you see how tall this skyscraper is?Ray has an idea though. Let’s use a helicopter! The one they use isn’t Ecto-2 – maybe it hasn’t been replaced yet? Bit odd that Peter is surprised that Ray can fly one of these things. Er, they used to own one! Let’s forgo how they actually suddenly acquired this helicopter, and besides, it’s not very effective as it gets caught up in a storm and almost kills them.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h19m30s174

Luckily, one act break later, they land on the roof and then abseil down to an easy access point. Well, I say easy – when they smash through the windows, Egon ends up putting his foot right into a TV screen! Amazingly, he wriggles loose from it without rupturing any arteries or getting so much as a scratch.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h22m03s482

Peter has the right idea. He just picks the lock of the roof door (with a nail file – I love that Peter owns one) and walks downstairs. Here we get to have a peek at Tummel’s taste in art, which is very old and very gold. The guys find some of Tummel’s staff, who are utterly terrified at being taken over to the ghost world and being used as slaves. As Peter says, why be rich if you haven’t got a few poor people to push around?

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h27m02s667

Arriving at Tummel’s lab (Egon is temporarily blindsided by all the fancy gear and insists on re-negotiating the research budget when they get back home), the guys are greeted by ‘Mr. Moneybags’ with a barrage of deadly lasers (cue one of the series’ rarely used action themes) and we get a rare totally non-supernatural set-piece. Egon reckons the only way for them to win is for Tummel to overload the amount of energy going into his scheme, thereby causing it to crash. Peter has the smart idea of tricking the old man into trying to convert the whole building into the ghost world. After all, where’s he going to live once he crosses over? Clever scheme, and it works – Tummel goes crazy mad with laughter and screams about taking ‘everything… EVERYTHING!!!’ and Egon just hopes that the overload will cause a power failure and not a huge explosion. Peter looks like he’s going to throttle Egon when he realises the stupid risk they’ve just taken. Egon, for all his smarts, does take some of the most insane chances in this series. He only just did such a thing at the end of the previous episode, which I’m sure you’ve already forgotten by now because it wasn’t very good.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h28m23s028

In the midst of all the laser madness, Tummel’s wheelchair gets blasted and the silly fool ends up being hurtled into the gateway to the ghost world. Meanwhile there’s far too much energy going about and the systems are overloaded and can’t be turned off. Computerised death – don’t you just love progress, Peter asks? Egon agrees before running off to the gateway, opening a trap (which he hopes will jam the signal from our world to the next as well as pulling all the released ghosts back home) and then muttering something utterly incoherent that sounds something like Popeye’s own ramblings.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h34m55s421

Winston saves him from getting crushed by a random piece of falling architecture and everyone runs out of the room, with Ray reassuring Peter that the five bucks he owes him can be waived if this plan goes south, which it doesn’t, though Egon is so impressed with all the ghosts returning home that he forgets the building’s due to go the same way. Cue a reference to Heisenberg a long, long, long time before Breaking Bad made this sort of thing cool and a sharpish exit via helicopter. Very sharpish in fact, as Egon and Peter are forced to hang off the side of the chopper and do so without complaint or fear (odd given Peter’s clear freakout earlier over the thought of abseiling). The gateway tries to ensare the guys, but Winston throws his proton pack out of the helicopter to shut it the hell up.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h38m31s188

They escape, but not before seeing a maniacal Tummel fly up and out of this world, just before the building itself is spectacularly transported over to the other side. A very bumpy landing follows – miraculously Peter and Egon (they’re still hanging on to the side, remember) are not hurt.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h40m10s797

Just like the title of this episode insisted, all of Tummel’s time and effort was for absolute nowt, as his loot just ends up crashing back down to Earth. Peter’s the first to discover this when a bundle of notes hits him on the noggin. I can imagine that must have hurt, but at least it wasn’t one of the bars of gold that hit him. That would have definitely killed him. There seems to be a moment where Peter considers taking the cash for himself, but just like when Murtaugh throws away the drug money that could put all of his children through college in Lethal Weapon 2, he wants nothing to do with it. The thing is, what is going to happen with that money? The guys drive off before the cops show up, thereby avoiding giving a very helpful explanation as to how all that money got there, not to mention why Tummel’s HQ has just suddenly vanished. I suppose the cops might do the right thing and give it to charity. I bloody well hope so.

vlcsnap-2017-05-05-22h41m04s054

So, in conclusion we have the best episode of The Real Ghostbusters for quite a while – let’s see if that quality can spill over into the next episode, shall we?

SPOILER: It will.

PS: Sorry about the ‘ghosting’ in some of the above screenshots. The quality of this episode on the DVD is a little below-par.

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 36: Hanging by a Thread

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h46m25s031

This is not one of the more popular episodes of The Real Ghostbusters. And you know what, it isn’t very good at all. But I liked it better than ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Ghost?’, mainly because it’s pretty crazy. We start off with The Three Fates – three indistinguishable blondes in togas who spend most of their day playing with threads, each of which is the life and fate of a particular individual. Rather casually, they discuss the destinies of the lives they’re dealing with, though we never get to see them say stuff like ‘this man will lead a horrible, painful life’ or ‘this one will have no real reason to exist’.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h48m01s024

It seems like these three have a huge responsibility between them, and the local nearby demon, who may or may not genuinely be called The Lord of the Stench, wants to steal it from them, and more specifically the golden shears and thread used to create the fates of humankind. That way he can pass it on to his boss and sort it out so that the whole world will turn to evil! Nothing specific, from the sounds of it. Just evil. The demon has his own cocky, sarcastic underling and a load of minions who charge the Fates’ lair and attempt to steal the goods.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h49m00s053

However, the shears end up being hurtled out into the realms of time, which winds up the demon no end. Think about it, those shears could be ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. This could be the basis of an entire spin-off series, where the demons visit different eras and different places in order to find the lucky scissors and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home, but of course the shears end up in present-day New York. You know, where the Ghostbusters live.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h50m21s561

We get a few failed attempts to find the shears beforehand though. One of these appears to take place at the unveiling of the Brooklyn Bridge (which would date it to 1883) – upon realising that the scissors used to cut the celebratory ribbon are just regular snippers, the demon uses them to cut the cables of the bridge, destroying it and we can only presume, killing everyone standing on it. Wow, we’ve gone back to the sadism of ‘Ghosts R Us’ with that casual act of mass murder, haven’t we? Also, how can scissors cut a bridge? Why am I even seriously bringing this up? This is clearly an ‘anything goes’ kind of episode. The second attempt appears to involve founding father of the USA Benjamin Franklin, who is flying his kite in the rain (he was responsible for demonstrating lightning’s electrical content) but the demon has no luck. Most of the others appear to have the right idea (which is – where do most cataclysmic events take place in this series?) and head off to New York, and more specifcally Manhattan’s Garment District, which if you’ll remember, was where the episode ‘Cry Uncle’ featured a scene. The shears end up outside a boring shop owned by a boring man whose bored son wants more excitement in his life. Some demons on the opposite roof should sort that out. We don’t see these two characters again, by the way.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h52m01s900

Back at HQ, the guys are so bored they’re playing a ‘guess the ghost’ game where Ray shows the other three some pictures of spookie-ookies and they have to guess what they are. They all have pretty insane names – I’m sure I heard a ‘screaming willy’ in there somewhere. Luckily a call gets them out of their torpor and Peter is so excited that he literally jumps on Ray’s back to get to where he needs to be. Slimer and Janine are left behind. Slimer is such a wet blanket he gets freaked out by his own image (he was the next ghost to be guessed in Ray’s card game). The guys end up at the garment district, where the demons’ method of attack range from the pathetically lightweight (pelting them with clothes) to the seriously dangerous (pelting them with clothes set on fire), but suddenly the Lord of the Stench and his crew head off.  Ray’s proton pack ends up broken but a bit of duct tape gets the job done. He then cuts off the tape with the nearby SHEARS OF FATE and for no other reason that in order to get the plot going he takes the shears with him. Okay, it’s an absent-minded act, but seriously, it takes a lot to absent-mindedly put a pair of sharp scissors in your pocket and then run with them afterwards. Didn’t he feel a pinch or something? Peter blankly prides himself on his crew’s ‘fantastic service’ to the adoring public. We’re only 36 episodes in and he’s clearly already jaded with fame and success already.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h54m04s579

Meanwhile, The Fates are lurking nearby, and are concerned that the shears’ volatility puts whoever is in possession of them in grave danger. They really didn’t think this plan through very well, did they?

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h55m25s475

The guys head off home, only to discover that the Stench’s minions have plastered themselves all over the outside HQ, in what is arguably the episode’s most arresting image. Well, it would have been an even better image if the animation in this episode was up to scratch, which it isn’t. The Lord of the Stench, rather brilliantly, order his minions to ‘SMITE THEM!’. This needs to be used a lot more in a lot more situations, like when Homer Simpson said something like ‘Oh, smiteful one, show me who to smite and they will be smoten!’, which to be fair is such a good line that no one could top it. A melee of seismic ripplicious proportions follows, and in the midst of the chaos, the Lord gets the shears. He boasts that his own boss, the Lord of Evil, will get to use them for all kind of nastiness. Weirdly, the Lord of Evil never makes an appearance. This is annoying. I mean, if you introduce a gun in the first act, you’d better use it in the third, you know?

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-19h58m42s128

The demons scarper with the shears and the Three Fates unhelpfully show up afterwards. They explain the situation and Ray starts with ‘You mean the scissors that I -’, conveniently stopping before he’d have to admit he STOLE them, the thieving git. The Three Fates then absolve themselves of all responsibility by claiming that since it was mortals who complicated this, it is mortals who must resolve the situation, by delving into the Underworld. This is a bit rich. I mean, listen mate, if you’d had better security measures back at home we wouldn’t have been in this badly-animated situation to begin with, ya get me? There’s some twaddle about only having one hour to get them back and that they have to return to the exact spot they arrived in, and the guys are all cool with this, except Egon initially, who can’t believe all of this is all about a pair of scissors.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-20h01m50s210

The Underworld is a pretty cool looking place, all red skies, red rocks and cavernous interiors. There is a softly-spoken ferryman who will take the guys to wherever they want to go at a price. The guys don’t have the necessary twenty gold pieces, but they do have a lucky rabbit’s foot and a cheese sandwich. The ferryman is annoyed that it’s white bread and not pastrami or rye. The ferryman seems to have a lot of knowledge of the above world – he pines for a motor for his boat, corned beef for his sandwich, the poor man. More almost-cool visuals follow – lava springs, volcanic arenas – as I said earlier, if the animation had been handled with a little more love, this would have been a pretty good looking episode. The guys retrieve the shears in a forgettable confrontation but have almost run of time in the process. Using bad-writing logic, the twelve remaining seconds are stretched out to ludicrous point and the guys return home (Egon pushing them off into oblivion in the hope that they’ll reach the pick-up point quicker) – I don’t know how doing this would actually return them to the point where they had originally arrived, but I think I’m spending more time thinking about this episode than the original writers did. Oh well, they’re back home now. They return to the shears to the Three Fates, who don’t even thank them. They just disappear with the shears. I’ve realised I actually hate the Fates. They’re rubbish.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-20h04m36s247

Peter congratulates Egon on his canny thinking – you know, that it didn’t matter if Egon’s last-ditch plan was dangerous because ultimately he knew they’d be alright – but Egon admits he really didn’t think the plan going to work and had merely crossed his fingers. Peter falls down, Ray exclaims ‘hey, he fainted!’ and the episode ends immediately. Never mind that this is a weaker imitation of the ending to ‘Night Game’, this blasé conclusion sums up ‘Hanging by a Thread’ pretty neatly. It’s totally throwaway, clumsily staged, one of the worst looking episodes ever and is only better than the last episode by being a little funnier and being occasionally bonkers.

vlcsnap-2017-04-29-20h05m33s672

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet: A brief look at Dario Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’

The wild and weird output of the landmark Italian horror/thriller director Dario Argento can neatly be split up into three chapters.

The middle and most famous chapter, from 1975’s Deep Red to 1987’s Opera, is heralded by those who love him as one of the all-time great runs of genre cinema, films of such verve, idiosyncratic extremes and horrific beauty that it’s no wonder they’ve inspired the kind of intense devotion that true cults are made of.

The third chapter, which covers everything from 1989’s Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes right up until now, is where Argento’s mojo starts to slip away and we get a much spottier output, some of it good, some of it bad.

Then there was the first chapter, when Argento was just starting out. In this period he delivered three fine thrillers that you could (and I try not to, but I ultimately do) regard as mere build-ups for what was to come, but they also mostly work very well as films in their own right. They’re often referred to as ‘The Animal Trilogy’ for no other reason than their titles. Those titles by the way are just so much fancy window-dressing – they sound cool, mysterious and unique, but they barely relate to the actual bloody films, bar a shoe-horned reference here and there. Compared to Argento’s golden period, these films are far more modest in their ambitions and impact, but something like 1969’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is actually a pretty neat entry-point for those who aren’t at all sure about how to approach this most extreme of filmmakers. What’s interesting about Bird is not only how relatively normal it is for an Argento film but also how many of his motifs and themes were right there from the start. Scary paintings, unreliable memories, helpless murder witnesses, obsessed protagonists, unique cinematic tricks, cats – it’s all here. The seeds were being sown.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-22h04m10s083

The plot involves blocked writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnessing the stabbing of a woman in a museum by a mysterious black-clad assailant. He’s unable to help because he’s trapped in-between two sets of glass doors (Argento would take this motif of helpless watching to one hell of an extreme in 1987’s Opera), but nevertheless develops his own obsession with the mystery as the film proceeds, becoming amateur detective (another Argento regularity) and dancing perilously close to death as a result. Argento’s been criticised for his unbelievable characters, and some might balk at the scene when Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are in bed going over the clues (and various grisly crime scene photos) with an enthusiastic glee that surely no sane person would adopt if any of this were real. But if you consider that Argento could be letting his characters approach the case in the same way a viewer would approach a mystery film, then it almost makes some kind of perverse sense. Sam and his girlfriend’s reactions are almost like if you and I were going over the plot of say, a TV crime series the day after it had been screened. This might put some viewers off though for being too remote, and not how people in real life would react, but Argento and ‘real life’ have always been a tricky combination. There’s also a bit earlier Sam is walking home (down a beautifully eerie, foggy street) and is almost hacked by the killer – he pretty much shrugs it off and later relays the previous night and day’s events with a wry dismissal. Blimey.  With stuff like that, you’re either happy to go along for the ride or you aren’t. Besides, this is nothing compared to the infamously odd scene in Opera where the heroine, having just been forced to watch her boyfriend get a knife up through his jaw, behaves if she’s only mildly inconvenienced. That really did annoy me.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-22h05m27s633

The violent extremes that Argento would become famous haven’t been reached yet – the first murder takes place entirely off-screen (!!!!), but there are still some unsettlingly nasty moments here – I imagine they were pretty damned strong for 1969, and to think that this director would only get more and more cruel, elaborate and gory from here on in! Also, one thing that differentiates this from Argento’s other gialli is that this has a reasonably happy ending – think of all the others from 1970’s Cat O’ Nine Tails onwards, they have a sting in the tail, are uncertain or are pretty damned bleak.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-20h40m26s614

 

Speaking of Cat, this is an Argento film that has always been relatively easy to find in the UK – on video it was distributed by Warner Bros. It got a rental release in 1987 to presumably cash in on Argento’s cult popularity (the cover refers to Suspiria and more recent films like Creepers – aka Phenomena – and the Argento-produced Demons) and was also re-released as part of Warners’ very cool Terror Vision collection of horror movies. However, while Bird was a hit in the US, Cat was not. Oddly enough, for a director who has featured kitties in many of his films, Cat O’ Nine Tails doesn’t star any felines at all. This is very disappointing. The plot is a twisty-turny tale of murder, theft, kind-of incest, genetics etc. and while it is no Argento classic, I love it for its tension between giallo grotesquerie and Stateside potboiler. Even though it’s not set in the US, it nevertheless feels like an episode of a crime series like Columbo and The Streets of San Franscisco at times, understandable given that the latter’s star Karl Malden is one of the two leads here.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-20h45m11s076

 

The plot – something about the criminality of the XXY chromosome and the killer’s desperate attempt to cover up that they have it – is even more convoluted and silly than the one for Bird, and hinges on implausibilities: the one that’s currently bothering me is the second murder: why would the killer bump off the photographer to conceal the fact that a murder took place originally? All you could see in the original photo was a hand! Talk about compounding the situation! To be honest, I’ve watched Cat three times now and the last two times I had forgotten who the murderer was, so this isn’t really a film that revolves around a particularly important revelation. Maitland McDonagh, author of the brilliant Argento book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, suggests that the film is a lot more fun if you already know who the killer is. I kind of agree with that – as a whodunnit, Cat is hardly a classic, but as an exercise in style and flair, it’s very enjoyable indeed. One thing that Argento has already upped his game with substantially is his handling of murder scenes. The first, a gruesome killing at a train station, is spectacularly nasty. We also get some pretty vicious first-person kills that are protracted, garish and pretty damned ugly. It’s also a cynical movie – note the way the photographers are distracted from the murder of Calabresi (the first victim) with the arrival of the celebrity arriving on the train for whom they were originally there for, and ‘Smile bitch, your train just killed a guy’ is one of the cruellest asides in any Argento film. In addition, it’s the little extra sadistic touches that stand out – after strangling the photographer, the killer slashes each of his cheeks. The vomit in Bianca’s mouth as she’s getting garotted. When the killer falls down the lift shaft, he/she attempt to hold onto the lift cables but that ends up causing so much friction that their hands begin to smoke – ouch!

And of course, this shot.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-20h42m38s875

Argento, more than in Bird, is clearly interested in set-pieces and individual stand-out moments. Aside from the murders, we also get a car chase, an excursion to a cemetery, a suspense-scene involving poisoned milk and a funny scene at the barber’s that’s half amusing, half squirm-inducing. These are the stand out moments, but Argento joins the dots nicely thanks to charismatic performances from James Franciscus (soon to venture Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and Karl Malden, whose character in turn has a cute double-act with his niece. Catherine Spaak represents that rare thing in an Argento film – a love interest – and even though the dynamic between her and Franciscus isn’t as sharp or fascinating as the one between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, it’ll do well enough, despite a love scene that’s so drained of heat it’s almost alien. Some neat uses of editing (like jumping back and forth in-between scenes as an arresting form of transition, the cutaways that suggest that Malden’s blind character has some kind of second sight), the memorably nasty (and oblique, if you go along with McDonagh’s theory that the killer wasn’t lying about his final victim) ending and great shot composition makes this is a relatively modest but still above-average slice of genre fare.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-22h07m39s741

 

Accidental murder, phoney murder and out-and-out intentional murder, as well as self-loathing gender identity, filial hatred, infidelity and yes, feline abuse form the bulk of 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which is the darkest and weirdest of the Animal Trilogy. It was given some kind of Holy Grail status over the decades due to how rare it was to track down but don’t get excited, this flawed film is most definitely not a ‘lost masterpiece’ as the cover of the eventual Blu-Ray excitedly release claimed it to be. Still, I like it for the most part – it sees Argento venture even further out there in regards to technique and idiosyncrasy. There are some tremendous moments to savour. The opening sequence blends music and visuals brilliantly as we get a prog-rock band in rehearsal whilst the camera explores a guitar by perching on the top of its neck or even occupying a space INSIDE it – we see the hand strumming the strings! There’s a great protracted suspense scene as a doomed maid finds the zoo she’s in becomes deserted and, as she’s pursued by the killer, seems to turn into some kind of cobwebbed catacomb! The final scene proves you can make anything beautiful as long as you add slow-motion and Morricone. Fans of Argento’s later work will notice little touches here and there that he’s repeated later on. Puppets, slow-motion bullets, that sort of thing. As for the absolutely insane method of detection that involves taking the last image seen by the victim before they died? Well, it comes out of nowhere so late in the narrative and is frankly complete twaddle, but it’s so mad that I can’t help but admire its nerve.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-22h11m36s557

However, any resemblance to conventional thriller fare that his first two films might have had are slipping away, and to be honest, we’re occasionally in an awkward middleground between the immediately satisfying if relatively unambitious likes of Bird and Cat and the more successful craziness of Deep Red. Sometimes the film feels flat, and this isn’t helped by Michael Brandon in the lead character of Roberto, a drummer who thinks he’s killed someone (in a spectacularly abandoned concert hall) but hasn’t, yet is still guilty of being a dickhead. He certainly looks the part (and his resemblance to Argento himself has been noted) but he’s one of the director’s more charmless leads. His performance is most odd – at times he seems to be barely reacting to anything. His scenes with girlfriend Mimsy Farmer as she’s practically breaking down in front of him are some of the coldest you’ll ever see. Is it because Roberto is so remote he’s barely there, or is the actor not really trying? Incidentally, Brandon was some way down the list of preferred actors for the role – if you can believe it, the likes of James Taylor (yes, that one) and Tom Courtenay (yes, that one) were considered!

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-22h10m52s220

There’s also a would-be humorous element that doesn’t quite work – the bit when Roberto first encounters ‘God’ and this out-of-the-blue musical snippet of ‘Hallelujah’ appears out of nowhere is really bloody weird. Other broadly jokey bits, including a put-upon postman, don’t really work, though the digs at hipster arty-banter are quite amusing – I wish more of these prats had been killed off to be honest. The only light element that truly succeeds is the character of the gay private detective who is hedging his bets on a successful result after eighty-plus unsuccessful cases. It’s an affectionate performance and too sweet to be offensive or patronising, though some viewers might object to it. Nevertheless, he’s the most engaging character in the film. Incidentally, the fact that one of the reasons that a character in Cat O Nine Tails is suspicious because he’s he’s gay  is the kind of dated stuff you have to take as a given in a film that’s almost fifty years old, I suppose.

vlcsnap-2017-04-09-22h08m48s689

In regards to subtext and themes, Four Flies is definitely the most complex of Argento’s first three films – the killer’s motivations are fascinating for example – but it’s difficult to get swept up in the whole affair mainly because the director has not found the confidence to go full-pelt with his vision. It’s simply not Argento enough. After an anomolous diversion into comedy for his fourth film (The Five Days of Milan), Argento would truly find his thriller-horror mojo from 1975 onwards.

One point of interest regarding these three films is the hiring of Ennio Morricone as composer – Argento’s collaborations with Goblin and its various members are his most celebrated, but the Morricone stuff has a magical appeal all of its own. Sometimes it’s generic, but othertimes it’s very nicely complementary, memorable and effective. Compared to the Goblin and Emerson stuff though, it’s just too damned normal!

These three films, had they been the only ones that Argento had ever made, would I’m sure still be as warmly remembered by cultists now as they are in real life. Those who object to the director’s more out-there and excessive later work might even find that the likes of Bird and Cat are their own personal favourites of the work. For hardcore Argento fans though, it’s unlikely any of these three will occupy the top spot, but they are still essential viewing for anyone who want to delve further into the man’s work, and also pleasing (if er, unpleasant) viewing for anyone who wants a bit of vintage late sixties/early seventies thrills.

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 35: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Ghost?

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-19h54m34s391

This is not one of my favourite episodes – despite an apparently important emotional revelation at the end, the whole thing doesn’t really amount to an awful amount – the second act in particular drags out what little material it has to patience-breaking point.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-19h55m36s675

We start off with New York’s poshest wining and dining in one of the city’s finest restaurant (flies still get into the soup, mind). They’re doing their own thing, living their own priviliged lives, whilst outside ghosts are terrorising the regular folk, and the Ghostbusters are on the case. Inside, there is a very, very bored posh couple, both of whom have annoying voices, who are discussing the problem of their haunted house. Hubby suggests the Ghost Smashers (he read about them in the National Inquisitor – oh wait, that’s the National Intruder). Wifey, with her voice that sounds like she’s trying to talk and eat chewy candy at the same time, is not interested, and doesn’t seem to think much of her other half. The Real Ghostsmashers (sorry) end up following their spectral pursuit inside the restaurant. The guests are shocked and horrified (one of them screams just like Peter) and a food fight almost gets going (I hate food fights) but luckily for the restaurant and for us the impatient viewers, it doesn’t go anywhere.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-19h56m33s688

Hubby asks Winston for the Ghostbusters’ details but Wifey doesn’t want to associate with ‘ruffians’. They head back home to their very fancy place, but unbeknownst to them, one of the restaurant ghosts hitches a ride in their exhaust pipe (just like that bit in the film!). This ghost has a head that looks like a pine cone. It turns out that the haunted mansion’s supernatural ‘threat’ is none other than Wifey’s own Uncle Horace, who has one of the most annoying voices ever, even more annoying than either of the couple. He’s a really pathetic spectre too – scared of everything. The thing is, he doesn’t realise he’s a ghost. He’s also looking for something, but he doesn’t know what it is. He keeps referring to it as his ‘whatever it is’.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-20h00m58s695

Wifey and Hubby dress up in sheets and chains to try and scare Horace – now you may wonder if dressing up as a ghost could scare a ghost, but in the case of wimpy Horace, it works. Far from a ‘depressing’ result, as Wifey feared. Oddly enough, at no point does Horace look down and notice that he has no feet. In fact, he has nothing below the knees. That might have helped him suss things out a lot sooner. Saying that, he even sees himself (or lack of) in the mirror early on and still doesn’t figure things out. He even flees moments of peril by moving through walls, but no, he never realises why he’s able to do such things. He’s stupid. Ugly too, according to Hubby. However, I do get an unrelated minor chill regarding Horace because he looks a little bit like the head prankster ghost in ‘The Old College Spirit’, who, if you remember, at one point transmogrified into one of the scariest monsters in the entire series. Maybe they were brothers? After the malarkey involving Wifey, Hubby and Horace dies down, it is hinted that there be that there could be some unresolved emotional issues between Wifey and Uncle Horace, with talk of her being ‘let down’ by him. Meanwhile, the restaurant ghost is now in the mansion, and he’s just a little pain in the arse, drawing moustaches on paintings, that sort of thing.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-20h03m21s622

Horace finds the Ghostbusters business card that Hubby left behind in his fright (the text of which has a cute throwback to ‘Troll Bridge’) and calls HQ – the poor guys have been working two days straight and want to go to bed, but promise of working for ‘old money’ act as a veritable Pro-Plus and off they go to the ‘pretentious but not ostentatious’ abode, where they try to lure the ghost out from its hiding place by pretending to leave (that’s one way of doing it, I suppose), after which Horace emerges from the fireplace only to blasted by proton beams. He doesn’t like it one bit. Oddly, we get an act break with no musical cue at all. Just the sound of screaming. If Horace was less of a nuisance, this would probably play out a lot more disturbingly than it does.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-20h04m59s147

We fade into act two, and somewhat sadistically the guys are still blasting the hell out of Horace. A reference to ghosts sets Horace’s radar off and he tries to protest, saying that he’s not dead, and that he’s going to sue them, and this is when he realises that he really is dead. The guys go off to find the real cause of the house’s destruction. Cue some ‘antics’ regarding gramophones (playing Dixieland jazz -see ‘Play Them Ragtime Boos’), Wifey and Hubby still pretending to be ghosts, and Horace still banging on about finding whatever it is he’s looking for too. Maybe all he’s looking for his feet and lower legs. He needs to find out what that thing he is looking for is though, otherwise he won’t be able to cross over into the afterlife and spare us from watching him being stubbornly rude to Ray and Egon. He gets in a cute reference to The Shadow at one point though as he tries to look scary, so he’s not completely without merit. After this, we cut to the restaurant ghost, who’s dancing in the air to the gramophone, but yelling with the same voice Horace was screaming with when he was getting blasted earlier. There’s some bloody odd soundtrack choices in this episode.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-20h06m23s938

There’s some silliness involving the restaurant ghost sweeping Wifey off her feet and dancing with her in the air, which leaves the guys in a quandary about how to blast it without his dance partner falling to the ground, but some rope swinging trickery from Egon saves the day. This is when Horace realises that he was looking for his niece all this time – and all he wanted to do was tell her he loved her. And it turns out she was upset with him all this time because he ‘left’ without saying goodbye. Bloody hell, had Horace known he was going to shuffle off in advance, maybe he would have sorted out his farewells more efficiently, but we can’t all arrange when we go, do we? ‘Let down’. Blimey. Oh well, at least everything’s resolved, everyone’s happy, and the final line of dialogue is the none-more 1980’s send-off ‘let’s blow this pop stand’, which I swear I heard a million or so times during my addiction to animation as a child.

vlcsnap-2017-03-08-20h07m05s323

It’s an okay episode – a lot of goofing about, silly voices and no real threat. It’s also definitely the weakest episode I’ve reviewed so far. We need a pick-up.