Wednesday, December 5, 2007

In Praise of Schlock, or Why Does an Adult Sit in the Dark Watching Movies About Cross-Eyed Gorillas and Hopping Chinese Vampires?

It wasn't until college that I became interested in the B movie. As a teenager my pals and I had haunted the art houses of Washington, D.C. and watched anything that held the promise of nudity, or films that had a reputation as favorites of the "Let's drop a couple of tabs, smoke a joint and smuggle in a bottle of Bacardi 151" set.

So we saw things like 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen at the Uptown on Connecticut Avenue, or Wild Strawberries, or midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Key Theater on Wisconsin Avenue.

But in college, majoring in cinema and English, the life-changing event came my sophomore year when the Denison University Film Society brought us Night of the Living Dead, which I saw with my buddy Steve Lander.

I had never seen anything like it. The deadpan, flat, documentary tone of the film, the relentlessly grey imagery, and those damn zombies that just kept coming - we were climbing out of our seats.

After graduation someone bought me a copy of Calvin Trillin's "American Stories," a collection of New Yorker pieces which included an account of the rise and fall of Joe Bob Briggs, drive-in movie columnist for the then Dallas Times-Herald.

Trillin's narrative was so funny I immediately tracked down "Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In," a collection of the actual reviews that eventually got the Briggs character into trouble.

And if reading about Joe Bob (in real life, a journalist named John Bloom) was amusing, the stuff published in a major American newspaper was unbelieveable.

I was especially taken by the Briggs method of summing up a film: "Two breasts. One beast. Three gallons blood. Heads roll. Two and a half stars. Joe Bob says check it out."

The next thing was to rent all the movies mentioned in "Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In," a process that took years and involved many unfortunate detours. I have now seen hundreds of low-budget films, and most of them are in fact quite awful in every way.

But some are so dreadful they transcend their limitations and become extremely peculiar works of note - in particular a group of films made in the 1980s and early 1990s, before digitized special effects ruined movies with the video-game kung fu moves and the "Oh cool, the whole room is moving around again" Crouching Matrix shtook.

I am talking about films such as Basket Case, The Evil Dead, and Frankenhooker. These movies are disgusting, full of prurient interest, and have no redeeming social value whatsoever. They are also funny and well-crafted.

And there are more of these than you'd think. My researches took me to the works of Ed Wood, which are uniformly hard to take without serious chemical stimulation, and then to the catalog of another Grade Z master, Herschell Gordon Lewis, who was much more capable than Wood. (See Lewis' The Wizard of Gore and 2,000 Maniacs!)

The "Aztec Mummy" series, three of them all featuring the same World's Longest Ancient Aztec Karaoke/Human Sacrifice scene (the fourth is the one with the lady wrestlers) are fabulously bizarre.

A video company called "Something Weird" puts out a fine line of two- and three-fers of forgotten exploitation fare, which is where I found (for example) the cross-eyed giant gorilla flick The Mighty Gorga paired with an Ed Wood-written sexploitation quickie, One Million AC/DC.

There have also been a handful of newer films that venture into the exploitation realm, most notably 2003's Bubba Ho-Tep and 2004's zombie send-up Shaun of the Dead: good schlock with a bit of a budget that makes the schlock less, well, schlocky.

And the idiotic Borat movie really is pure exploitation - of everyone involved, from the drunk college kids who are suing to people like me who plunked down their eight smackers and sat through that nekkid wrestling scene.

I just watched a restored version of Fritz Lang's M, a film that was banned, denounced and almost ruined the careers of the director and of star Peter Lorre, who had to go, first to England and then to Hollywood to escape the thing (and the Nazis).

At the time, M was pure schlock, and not seen as even remotely amusing. (Of course, life in Germany in 1931 wasn't a barrel of laughs, generally speaking.) Today, it's a classic film, and takes some subtle digs at cops, bureaucracy, and mob mentality in addition to being the first example of the "serial killer terrifies city and is caught with some fancy forensic work" scenario seen almost every night on "Law & Order" or "CSI" reruns.

So will Zombie Lake be the star attraction of a scholarly retrospective in 20 years? Probably not - but it's nice to think about it.

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