Wednesday, 31 October 2018


Charles Band created Empire International Pictures to facilitate the independent production and theatrical distribution of many distinctive horror films and science fiction and fantasy pictures, which were made throughout the middle period of the 1980s, usually containing a large dollop of comedy at their core -- the intention being to exploit the emerging home VHS market. After Luca Bercovici’s horror comedy Ghoulies was an unexpected box office hit for the Company, Band was able to purchase Dino De Laurentiis’s Cinematografici in Rome, and set about creating Empire’s very own mini studio system. Troll emerged at the very start of this golden period and came about as a result of ideas Band and director John Carl Buechler had already been discussing on the set of Ghoulies. Buechler’s friend, the mystery novelist and Ex Starlog and Fangoria editor Ed Naha, was brought in to script the film after having successfully turned his hand to writing genre screenplays for Roger Corman – and the result is one of the oddest middle-eighties horror fantasy genre products of all time: a bizarre hybrid of comedy, children’s fantasy, FX-driven horror and -- believe it or not -- musical! Largely dismissed at the time as an embarrassing misfire, Troll proved successful enough to spawn several unofficial and totally unrelated sequels, the first of which went on to earn itself a reputation for being the ‘best worst movie of all time’ until it was challenged recently by Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Both Troll and Troll 2 are now released on a single disc by Eureka Entertainment as part of a two-disc collection that also includes the Troll 2 documentary Best Worst Movie, alongside an extensive suite of extra features.

The first of these two movies was overseen by the man who was to go on to direct Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood in 1988, and features an offbeat but diverse cast made up of Emmy and Golden Globe winner Michael Moriarty; the teenage star of the then-recent hit movie The NeverEnding Story, Noah Hathaway; ‘60s singer-musician & actor Sonny Bono; Revlon model and Charlie’s Angels star Shelley Hack; plus it marks the first screen appearance of Seinfeld regular Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Troll comes with 'cult' stamped through its centre like a stick of rock but is distinguished by two performances that stand out as particularly special. Child actor Jenny Beck is compelling as the teenage hero’s mischievous Troll-possessed kid sister Wendy, and Phil Fondacaro brings an unexpected poignancy to the film in a dual-role playing sensitive University lecturer Malcolm Malory while also being the man in the rubber suit and make-up who plays the ugly Troll creature itself. These two embroider the throwaway tongue-in-cheek fantasy surrealism that motors the movie with the kernel of emotional truth which is most likely the key to its continuing popularity. Hopefully, Eureka’s new release will also encourage a whole generation of new fans to seek out what is undoubtedly a peak example of 1980s fantasy horror weirdness …

Twelve years before JK Rowling published the first Harry Potter novel, Troll introduced us to a fictional world of magic and spells in which a young teenager, also called Harry Potter (Noah Hathaway), discovers he has hidden powers that will be needed in order to thwart the plans of an evil wizard. The wizard Torok has been turned into a Troll a long time ago after losing the war he was responsible for starting between the humans and the fairies. Banished to a separate fairy realm as a result, he now plans to destroy the world by turning the inhabitants of a San Franciscan apartment complex (which happens to exist on the border between his world and ours) into a variety of impish fairy creatures, upsetting the natural balance that has existed between the two worlds for eons. This plan is put into practice, unfortunately, just as the Potter family are moving in on the ground floor. Little Wendy Potter becomes its first victim after she stumbles upon the horrible diminutive Troll creature living in the apartment building’s basement. He keeps her body imprisoned in a glass coffin in the fairy dimension whilst he possesses her mind and steals her likeness to use as a disguise to help him wreak havoc throughout the rest of the building. Gradually, various modern apartments get turned into bucolic mini fairy grottos after being paid a visit by this impish Troll disguised as the innocent little girl. And their inhabitants, such as Sonny Bono’s playboy lothario and a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus, find themselves transformed into a menagerie of bizarre creatures who soon all get to join in with a choral trolls’ sing-along! Eventually, Harry Potter Jr gives up trying to convince his oblivious parents (Moriarty and Hack) that something truly weird is going on right under their noses; and he is certainly wasting his time in trying to persuade them that his sister is no longer really his sister.  A chance meeting with a little old lady called Eunice St Clair (Lost in Space’s June Lockhart) introduces him to a world of fairy magic and sorcery. He finds out that she is really Torok’s one-time fairy princess, and has been living in the human realm to guard the gateway between the two worlds, hoping to ensure that Torok doesn’t manage to cause any real harm. Harry also discovers that he is the only person who can save his sister ... and possibly, the world.

Shot in Italy with matte painting backgrounds of the Golden Gate Bridge, Troll is truly a deranged piece of comedy-fantasy, and possibly the 80s’ most successful attempt at making pure surrealism out of FX-laden content -- a sub-genre Empire Pictures was becoming particularly adept at during this period. The film works primarily because the tone keeps shifting in unpredictable ways and one is never sure how to react to the bizarre sights and strange manic performances it presents across an entertainingly offbeat eighty minutes or so. The combination of animatronics, puppetry, matte work and optical effects, as well as stop-motion animation, produces a shifting tapestry of outrageousness -- a cartoon grotesquery that gets even stranger as the film progresses and with each new viewing. Beck gives an incredibly committed performance as the possessed child but also manages to convey the idea that beneath all that Troll mischief she’s responsible for, the sympathetic little girl is still present. This is particularly evident in her scenes with Phil Fondacaro when he’s in human form as the terminally ill lecturer Malcolm who befriends her. The role feels like an actor’s gift, intended as a ‘thank you’ for all those Troll and Ewok roles that ’little people’ usually have to put up with as their lot in life. Malcolm is probably the one straight role in the whole movie that has a genuine depth to it, and the friendship with Wendy, despite being played for laughs when Wendy’s unwitting parents prepare a children’s party to greet their daughter’s ‘little friend’, has genuinely touching moments -- such as when Malcolm discusses his fatal medical condition with the uncomprehending Troll/child.    

Despite its reputation -- garnered in the early years of internet fandom -- for being ‘the worst movie ever made’, Troll 2 plays exactly as you’d expect a film would play when it's been shot in the US by non-English-speaking Italians and produced by exploitation maestro Joe D’Amato; with goblin costumes (there are no trolls in Troll 2) ‘designed’ by Grindhouse star Laura Gemser, and a cast made up largely of non-actor Mormons with no previous experience in front of a camera. Fly-by-night Italian film producers coming to the US and shooting off the grid without permits to make unofficial low budget sequels to successful Hollywood genre movies was a common enough practice throughout the eighties, although by the end of the decade, when Troll 2 went into production in the picturesque village of Porterville, Utah, even this formula was struggling to remain profitable, as the Italian film industry was entering into a steep decline that was effectively side-lining the careers of even its bigger names at the time.

The director who had come to America to make this movie in the summer of 1989 with a crew of non-English-speaking technicians, was Claudio Fragasso, who’d been deeply involved in Italian genre films throughout the 80s, when he’d co-written ‘masterpieces’ of their kind such as Rats: Night of Terror and Hell of the Living Dead. He had partnered up with his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi to script Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei’s Zombie 3, but the couple’s most infamous collaboration came after Fragasso had begun directing low budget genre fare himself, and Drudi wrote him a script about vegetarian Goblins who turn people into plant matter because it makes them more easily digestible. So what is it about the film that has captured the imagination of so many down the years, and resulted in the sell-out screenings and the dippy Troll 2 parties we find documented throughout Best Worst Movie, the accompanying documentary on this release?  

As is so often the case, a lot of the noise that has accompanied the film down the years has only a tangential relationship to the actual work itself. There are some obvious production factors one can point at to explain the strangeness of some of the content and we can happily describe the most puzzlingly obtuse scenes to give some idea of why the film has developed its almost mythic status amongst devotees of bad movies and disciples of camp the world over, but the thing to keep in mind -- and that actually clinches the deal -- when considering Troll 2, is that this is not at all a badly made movie. Sure, continuity lapses give away that it’s clearly been made in a bit of a rush, like almost all films of its ilk; but these Italian crews were, nonetheless, skilled artisans who thought nothing of working under such conditions, and Giancarlo Ferrando’s cinematography is routinely excellent (something that can now be appreciated properly in full HD). Composer Carlo Maria Cordio delivers one of those typically Italian (and instantly familiar) Demons-inspired synth-based rock soundtracks that genre fans will recognise from countless late-period Fulci films. The screenplay may be bonkers but it keeps moving at a decent lick throughout; so unlike many ‘bad movies’ it’s never a chore to watch. Even when it inevitably starts to get bogged down in the final act (the film is still at least fifteen minutes too long), it entertains with the sheer ludicrousness of its spectacle. Has there, for instance, ever been a concept in any movie more ridiculous than the idea of a family being under siege in their house because they refuse to eat a bag of sandwiches? (tossed outside their barricaded front door with the threat “eat these sandwiches, or we will have to kill you violently!”) 

Troll 2 genuinely is a bad movie, but one that’s been done really well, with never any intention on the part of the film-makers to deliberately play up the camp factors. This is what ensures its camp value is actually off the scale. In that regard, the film represents an almost alchemical combination of elements coming together in just the right sequence and proportion to produce an effect that was never intended by anyone involved with the production, but which has resulted in Troll 2 obtaining (in an admittedly small-scale kind of way) a cultural durability very few other films in the grand scheme of things can ever hope to come anywhere near replicating.

Most of what makes Troll 2 special comes across as a result of the cultural contrast that's highlighted by how a mostly non-professional cast of actors approached their roles in the movie while running up against routine Italian filmmaking practices of that time period. You can find echoes of the effect this produces at work in almost any Italian film shot in the US with US actors during the 1980s (which is why even the best of those films often don’t play particularly well with your average modern cinemagoer). But Troll 2 pushes these processes way past the point of no return until it becomes simply impossible for an audience to suspend its disbelief and make allowances in the way that usually becomes necessary at some point during almost any movie.

Consequently, the film will either be rejected by the viewer or he or she will learn to watch and appreciate it in a different manner from most other films. When this happens in ‘respectable’ cinema, it’s called arthouse; when it happens in genre movies it either becomes a testament to a ‘so good it’s bad’ aesthetic, or the work gets filed away as a cult flick. Best Worst Movie, the documentary, is actually pretty good at providing pertinent material for the attempt one might want to make to get to grips with exactly why Troll 2 affects its audiences in the way it does. What comes across here is how seriously Fragasso and Drudi took their work at the time, and to some extent still do even today; with a straight face Fragasso describes Troll 2 in similar terms to how a director such as Aldo Lado might describe the political intent behind a movie of his like Late Night Trains (which, to the rest of the world looked like a knockoff of Last House on the Left, but set on a train) and solemnly explains how his film “examines many serious and important issues” concerning the institution of the family and the many threats it apparently faces. Even more puzzlingly, Drudi insists her offbeat screenplay was “a ferocious analysis of today’s society”. It’s not like Fragasso and Drudi didn’t intent the film to be funny; it quite clearly is conceived as a fantasy parable that takes certain elements from the structure of fairy tales and combines them with an Italian horror movie aesthetic that has a lot in common with the Demons franchise, particularly in how it replaces blood red gore with a more ratings-friendly green goo to take the film completely out of the realm of horror and into the zone of fantasy. Drudi also intended the film to be a knowing dig at vegetarianism, which she satirises by representing the heroes constantly have to fend off all sorts of unpleasant ‘healthy’ food options that actually poison them, and will either make them grow twigs and eventually turn into potted plants to be tended lovingly by the Goblin Queen, Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed), or melt into a putrid green slop that is actually the chlorophyll mulch her ugly burlap sack-wearing goblin brood use to feed on. In one of the deleted scenes from Best Worst Movie, Rossella Drudi also mentions how she had previously suffered from an eating disorder at one point in her life -- after which all those tense scenes in which we witness the wholesome Waits family being offered mountains of colourful but sickly-looking food and drink by goblins in human form, and the various schemes the ten-year-old hero Joshua (Michael Paul Stephenson) resorts to at the behest of the ghost of his dead Grandpa (played by the inherently avuncular Robert Ormsby) in order to avoid ever having to eat anything at all, suddenly begin to resonate with a whole new level of meaning.

The most important factor in determining how the movie turned out and was received, though, is the language barrier that existed between the English-speaking cast and the exclusively Italian-speaking crew. The script was written in Italian by Drudi and translated by her into English using a Webster’s Dictionary, producing that ‘tin ear’ effect that’s so enhanced by the fact that since some of the cast were not professional actors they simply did not have the skills to even begin convincingly selling the poorly rendered dialogue. Fragasso was also apparently improvising on set and changing elements of the scrip as he went along (the jaw-dropping scene in which Joshua decides that the best way to stop his family eating a feast left for them by the goblins will be to stand on a chair at the dinner table and piss on the food, was allegedly one of these improvisations) adding to the confusion of the cast (who couldn’t understand much of what was in the script at the best of times) and producing much of the head-scratching incoherence of the narrative. The cast was selected from open auditions, and it’s the movie’s potpourri of local theatre actors, hopeful neophytes, and enthusiastic amateurs -- each of whom seem to be individually pitching their performance for a slightly different imagined movie – which is responsible for many of the most beloved moments of ‘wrongness’ this film encompasses, as each member of the cast set about tackling in their own unique way the eccentricities of Drudi’s script. On the one hand, we have Deborah Reed, who plays the ancient stone-hugging druid Goblin Queen deliberately as a pantomime character -- or like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz but with a chainsaw. On the other, there is the crazed performance of Don Packard as Nilbog's drugstore owner, a local mental patient who took the role as a form of therapy and was apparently completely stoned the whole time the movie was being shot. 

Best Worst Movie started life as an attempt by the film’s former ten-year-old lead, Michael Paul Stephenson, to understand in later years how the film that he once thought would make him a movie star but in fact became an embarrassment, has suddenly morphed into a cult phenomenon that has resurfaced to turn him into a cult celebrity for a small but often obsessively devoted group of fans. His performance in Troll 2 is defined by the solemn but teary childlike earnestness he brings to the character of Joshua: the little boy whose dead Granpa Seth continues to visit him as a ghost to warn of the danger he and his family are in when his dad agrees to a house exchange venture that sees the family going to live in the home of the Presents clan in the small town of Nilbog (for the slow on the uptake, that’s Goblin spelt backwards).  Other highlights include Joshua’s feisty bodybuilding sister Holly (Connie Young) and her bizarre dysfunctional relationship with boyfriend Elliot (Jason Wright): a man who seems unnaturally devoted to his geeky friends, who follow the Waits family to Nilbog in a Winnebago and all sleep together in the same bed. Meanwhile, the trolls – sorry, Goblins! – were cast with dwarfs dressed in sacking and made up with amateurish masks; the ludicrous sight of them at the beginning of the film, jogging through woodland carrying their little wooden spears while Carlo Maria Cordio ’s synth-rock theme hammers away on the soundtrack, is just the first indication of the madness to come.

Stephenson began shooting his documentary in 2006 and continued over a period of four years. During that time, and since the final edit, the doc has come to be defined by one of its original stars more than any other. In fact, the story of Troll 2, as envisioned in this film, is the story of George Hardy, who plays Joshua’s no-nonsense dad Michael Waits and appears in many of Troll 2’s funniest scenes. Hardy was practising dentistry in Utah when the Troll 2 producers were casting for the movie in the area and he continued to do so throughout the shoot. After the film was completed he simply forgot all about it and was convinced his dreams of becoming a movie star had come to nothing when the film failed to appear in theatres. He went back to practising dentistry and set up his own family practice in his hometown of Alexander City, Alabama – which is where he has been for the last twenty years.

Alexander City appears to be a small, close-knit community of mainly elderly residents, only slightly bigger than Nilbog itself, where the extrovert and charismatic Hardy is well known and has become loved by everybody over the years as a respected local pillar of the establishment -- famous for dressing up as a rollerblading tooth fairy every year for the annual Christmas Parade. Best Worst Movie starts out as an endearing portrait of a small community with rather a traditional outlook on life, trying to wrap its collective mind around the idea that one of its most beloved sons has become a cult horror movie hero to lots of people up and down the country. When Troll 2 first came out on VHS and people there started to discover that their local dentist was in a horror film, especially after it started screening regularly on TV, the whole thing was at first treated as just a minor in-joke within the community. There’s an amusing interview with Hardy’s father where he admits: “we didn’t know whether to tell people about it or kind of keep it quiet” -- as though he was talking about a terrible family secret; but then the movie started to pick up a cult following which grew thanks to the early internet, and Hardy, always one for the limelight, decides to make himself known to the fan community online via his Myspace page. Before long he is being followed by the documentary makers as he travels all over the States to appear at screenings signing autographs and acting out scenes from the movie in front of wildly appreciative fans.

Hardy is shown fully enjoying every aspect of his newfound status as a doyen of bad actors in bad movies. He’s only too happy to engage with the hipster fans on their terms and laugh along with them at this ‘terrible’ movie he made all those years ago. The delight in his voice when he tells people back home in Alexander City how he was in “the worst movie ever made of all time!” is only outshone by their politely bemused reactions to this revelation, especially when, in attempting to publicise a screening In Alexander to raise funds for the local school system (“it’ll be a great fun thing to do after church”), he can’t resist the urge to act out his most iconic scenes in front of them like a small child eager to impress his disinterested adult relatives (“… and then I say: ‘you don’t piss on hospitality! I WON’T ALLOW IT!!’ ”). As it goes on, the documentary begins to add discordant notes of melancholy and irony and an almost unbearable level of pathos to the mix. When Hardy and Stephenson start to reach out to the other members of the cast and, eventually, to director Claudio Fragasso, flying him over for a special screening in Los Angeles and to be reunited with the entire cast during an event held at the original shooting location, it brings to light enough poignant mini-portraits of failed lives, loneliness, broken dreams and bitter realisations to fill a whole Betty & Joan-style Ryan Murphy mini-series, and Best Worst Movie effectively becomes the Grey Gardens of cult movie documentaries.

It is undoubtedly touching to see someone like Don Packard, who has struggled his entire life with mental health issues, given a whole new lease of life after experiencing the adulation of a fan screening; but it’s also disturbing to see Grandpa Seth -- or rather Robert Ormsby: a local theatre actor who never made another movie after this  -- sitting alone like a hoarder amid the disorganised clutter of his small house, casually telling us how he has frittered away his whole life (“but then, what else is there to do with a life but fritter it away?”) By the time Hardy tracks down his former co-star Margo Prey, who played his wife Diana in the movie, we’ve reached an almost Lynchian level of family psychodrama. Hardy and Stephenson have an awkwardly comic encounter with Margo and the ninety-five-year-old housebound mother she now cares for at home all by herself after they finally discover them living together in virtual seclusion in a house protected by a threatening ‘no trespassing’ sign. Even after breaking the ice and rekindling old memories of Troll 2 by persuading her to join them in acting out a scene from the film in her living room (with the confused mother impassively looking on), they are still ultimately unable to persuade Margo to join them for the planned cast reunion.

But by far the most awkward moments, though, during this middle section of the documentary at least, occur when director Claudio Fragasso and his screenwriter wife Rossella Drudi, fly over from Italy to America to explore for themselves the phenomenon of Troll 2’s newfound success. Fragasso clearly seems to be expecting an experience somewhat like that which greeted Lucio Fulci when the ailing director was first made aware, towards the end of his life, of the extent of the fandom then emerging around his gialli and his 80s horror movies, and got a chance to experience some of that fan worship not long before he died. What we witness instead with Fragasso, is a man gradually acclimatising to a very different situation as he learns to recalibrate his expectations and come to terms with the fact that people are laughing at things during the movie screenings that were never intended to be funny. Eventually, he convinces himself that being known as the director of the worst movie ever made is just as much of a compliment as being the director of the best movie ever made -- but not before we witness him haranguing an actor at a Q&A as he disputes their recollections of a chaotic movie shoot.

Gradually, the documentary broadens its scope to become an examination of the inherent bathos that attends the life of a cult movie actor. Disillusionment starts setting in for Hardy after a poorly attended memorabilia event in Birmingham in the UK, which produces some of the most cringe-making footage you will ever see (“we’ve come fifteen-thousand miles and no-one’s gonna frickin’ come to this table!”). But by the time he and some of the other cast members find themselves at a horror convention In Dallas, Hardy has decided that this whole scene is not really for him. For one thing, it becomes obvious that the insular small-town Alabaman in him is uncomfortable around people he considers to be ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’; and soon the dentist has completely overshadowed the cult movie star: “This place gives me the creeps,” he admits. “There’s tons of gingivitis around here. I guarantee you only about five per cent of these people flosses their teeth on a daily basis.” But there’s also the realisation that, like him, most of the other actors he meets at this event have only ever been known for one movie, and have often done nothing else since. The epiphany hits him: “It just seems like their whole life is built around what they did twenty or thirty years back.” It’s explained to him, as he and the others leave, that these kinds of events are “what actors do when they can’t get work. It’s basically the unemployment line for working actors.” Eventually, George Hardy, having experienced briefly what it’s like to have gained a modicum of fame, is happy to go back to his dental practice and a stable life in small-town  Alabama, although he doesn’t rule out starring in Troll 3 -- a project Claudio Fragasso is apparently hard at work on! 

Troll 2 appeals to the kind of people who appreciate that imperfection can have its own wonders and rewards; that you can basically make art out of the leftover puzzle pieces that don’t really fit together and still end up with something that works on its own terms, even if most of the world will never fully understand the attraction. This special UK edition from Eureka Entertainment contains hours of extras relating to both movies, including commentaries, making of documentaries, interviews and fan contributions – as well as a collector’s booklet. The 90-minute documentary Best Worst Movie also features over an hour of deleted scenes and interviews not included in the final edit.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018


It’s hard to think of another film you could show someone today that conveys the direction popular mainstream horror cinema was going during the 80s as well as Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps. Released to very little fanfare back in 1986, Dekker’s big studio debut feature has since become a minor cult classic, and is still probably the most memorable piece of work in what has turned out to be a rather scattered career for Dekker, although his long-time association with director Shane Black continues to this day -- most recently with a co-writing credit on Black’s 2018 Predator franchise reviver.

The 1980s saw the beginning of the ‘post-modern’ fad for overt self-aware genre referencing in movies, and Night of the Creeps encapsulates that major trend, defining this era of movie-making in one perfectly garish ninety-minutes of self-referential mayhem. It’s curious how the film had to wait until so much later to find its audience, though. Watching it now, in its pristine, newly minted high-definition Blu-ray incarnation courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, it becomes clear that, as well as standing equal alongside contemporaries of the period such as Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) -- which also mined the horror genre’s rich history for irony-laced humour -- it has, by an accident of its own design, come to be seen as a concentrated nostalgia blast for 1980s cinema enthusiasts in general.

Dekker captures the ambivalence and ambiguity behind the colourful ribaldry underlying so much mainstream cinema of this decade. All dressed up with an outer layer of glamour and gloss, yet driven by an undercurrent of social and political strife. The film is faithful to the style and tone of the John Hughes high school youth movies and American Graffiti-inspired 50s Frat boy humour of the same period, and charts similar territory with its focus on adolescent male friendship, the trials of dating and courtship, peer pressure and the politics of finding acceptance within the strictures laid down by a society in which it is considered requisite to be a rebel, but only with a view to eventually finding and accepting your place within an order defined by the values of Regan’s America. 

Popular North American horror cinema of this era is both anarchic and deeply conformist: so much of it hankers back to the presumed innocence of the 1950s while at the same time it rebels by recognising  and rejoicing in the cynicism of the EC Comics sensibility of that same decade; paying it a particular form of homage through its rubbery, FX-laden, animatronic cartoon splatter. In Dekker’s vision, a coach-load of frat-boys can have its brains invaded by alien slugs looking for a place to incubate space eggs, but it doesn't stop them turning up at the swanky Sorority House to pick up their dates for the Formal; they may technically be dead (shuffling zombies, prone to showering all-and-sundry in gruesome wriggling slug creatures that make heads suddenly to split apart to release their incubating swarm), but they follow the expectations of their peer groups nonetheless and continue to enact the social requirements of 1980s culture; rehearsing the accepted codes of societal behaviour as rigorously as all those blue-faced ghouls in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead who traipsed aimlessly up and down the aisles of their favourite shopping mall as society collapsed around them.

The bulk of the film is quite specifically set in the 1980s but deals with a legacy of events from thirty-years previously that has returned to haunt the present. As well as allowing Dekker the chance to pastiche 1950s monster movies and saucer mania-inspired SF in an exquisitely shot black-and-white ‘prologue’ section, this specificity of era means that, when viewed today the haircuts and fashions and even the tonal mix of humour and splatter don’t feel jarring or dated so much as perfectly attuned to the tenor of the times in which they are presumed to be taking place -- just as the preponderance of buzz cuts, T-Birds and ‘gee-whizz’ space age cutesiness soundtracked with the music of The Platters helps to place the 1950s part of the film for us. 

It helps, too, that Tom Atkins shows up in a prominent role as a hardboiled gumshoe cop, slowly losing his mind as the ‘creep’ invasion brings back the trauma of losing his high-school sweetheart to an axe murderer when he was but a lowly beat cop. Atkins has since become one of the standard bearers of 80s horror thanks to the roster of important movies he appeared in at the time -- such as The Fog, Escape from New York and Halloween 3: Season of the Witch -- so it makes perfect sense that he should show up in a movie made slap-bang in the middle of the decade, specifically written and shot as a mosaic of references to both past and then-contemporary genre trends. 

This was becoming a common-enough trait of 80s horror at the time, but few movies took this self-aware, postmodern-jigsaw-puzzle-reference-point approach to filmmaking quite as far as Dekker did: the opening scene, set on board an interplanetary craft full ludicrously rubbery aliens that look like overgrown babies without the nappies (and minus any visible genitalia), manages to combine an irreverent tribute to the  opening action from George Lucas’s Star Wars with the set design and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien and the mad humour of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste -- as we witness vertically challenged space creatures toting oversized laser weapons chasing a rogue member of their crew down shadowy corridors in the battle to stop him escaping in a space pod with a canister containing a deadly stolen genetic lab experiment. 

This is before the opening credits have even rolled. 

We then segue without pause into the lengthy black-and-white prologue, where the alien experiment falls to earth in 50s America as an apparent meteorite, witnessed and followed by a smooching couple at a drive-in haunt. It comes to rest in a pine forest along Route 66 and releases a slug-like creature that crawls into its unwitting human host’s mouth, turning the frat boy victim into a zombie that breeds more of itself inside the brain. 

This whole section is a pitch-perfect parody of 1950s b-movies and concludes with a slasher movie sting involving an axe-wielding maniac who escapes from a local lunatic asylum on the very same night aliens release brain-invading slugs into the vicinity. This provides the backstory to explain the PTSD detective Ray Cameron (Atkins) will still be suffering from thirty years on from the night he discovered the hacked up body he was called out to investigate was that of his own sweetheart. But it also introduces the central conceit of the movie, which depends upon shamelessly pilfering to combine elements of David Cronenberg’s Shivers and George Romero’s Dead trilogy. Oddly enough, the style, the aesthetic and the content anticipate the 1950s black-and-white segment from episode eight of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s recent Twin Peaks: The Return -- including its use of music by The Platters and the references to zombies and horrible bug creatures that take control of their host by crawling in through their victims’ mouths!  

The setting for the main 1980s-set portion of the movie is the nearby Corman University, where best buddy outsiders Chris Romero (Jason Lively) and John Carpenter (JC) Hooper (Steve Marshall) are desperate to join the Beta Fraternity in order to impress Sorority princess Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow), whilst being unaware that she is already the girlfriend of the fraternity’s loathsome president (Allan Kayser) -- known to all as the ‘Bradster’. If the character-naming policy illustrated above has made you groan out loud, then be prepared to make rather a lot of similar noises throughout this picture as in due course we will be introduced to a Detective Landis, a Sergeant Rami and a high school janitor called Mr Miner! Otherwise, Lively and Marshall anchor much of the writer-director’s tendency towards genre box-ticking enthusiasms like this in likeable performances that flesh out Dekker’s ability to turn story cliché into some emotionally engaging material.

We have here a basic Animal House/National Lampoon-style coming-of-age comedy of errors set-up: a bromance of teen-boy bickering and wisecracking, during which the lovelorn but awkward Chris depends upon his physically handicapped but loquacious and much wittier best pal sidekick JC to help him get the girl. In order for them to be accepted as new Beta House members, their plan requires the boys to pledge to break into the town morgue to steal a corpse as a prank. This being a sci-fi horror comedy rather than a conventional high school sex farce, the plan runs afoul of the fact that, unbeknownst to them, the morgue harbours a secret underground cryogenics laboratory where the high school victim of that earth-fallen alien brain slug has been on ice since the 1950s. JC and Chris manage accidentally to revive the zombified High School Jock, who promptly makes his way back to the Sorority House he first visited thirty years previously to pick up his date. Soon enough, a batch of newly incubated brain slugs emerges from his exploded head, thus setting the stage for much of the gory comic-strip excess that follows.  

Like many young first-time directors, Dekker handles the action like this film might be his one and only chance to prove himself behind the camera while he learns on the job. As a result, he throws every technique he can come up with onto the screen. This turns out to be good for the material, though, as Dekker’s preference for perpetually roving cameras, making use of dolly shots and various focusing tricks learned from his favourite directors, is undoubtedly a perfect fit for this kind of comic-strip action. Cinematographer Robert C. New and Editor Michael N. Knue handle the picture’s main and most important FX business -- David B. Miller and his team’s special make-up effects and Ted Ray’s animatronic splitting head creations -- with cool efficiency; and if some of the dialogue scenes and transition sequences can seem a little lacking in pace by today’s standards, that’s only an indication of the different requirements of 80s mainstream cinema. If anything, it comes as a pleasant change to be reminded of an era when more attention was paid to character beats and backstories. The relationship between the three young leads reaches a terminal crossroads when JC falls prey to a space slug infestation in the high school restroom, and Cynthia’s choice between boyfriend Brad and suitor Chris is decided by a flamethrower to Brad’s slug-infected head after he too gets turned into a shambling zombie (although Cynthia doesn’t immediately notice the difference)!

Perhaps the most memorable piece of the puzzle that falls into place and sets the tone here is Tom Atkins’ character arc as Detective Ray Cameron: with his trench coat and vintage Mercedes, we at first peg Cameron for a conventional hardboiled detective in the Raymond Chandler mode. But we soon discover there is a much darker edge to his story, lifting the character to a whole other realm that brings a level of poignancy to the film’s unhinged episodes of splattery horror. The make-up effects strike a nice balance between gory realism and rubbery cartoonishness and there is even a finale that employs Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation techniques, mocked up by animation supervisor Todd Masters for a scene in which a nest of writhing brain slugs is discovered dwelling in the Sorority House basement having recently hatched from a box full of human brains being stored there as a favour to the campus medical lab!

This new UK edition, hatched on Blu-ray just in time for Halloween 2018, features a pristine transfer and restores the director’s preferred ending. 5.1 DTS audio options and SDH subtitles are included, and the Limited Edition first pressing comes with a special O-card slipcase. The extras are plentiful and supply an exhaustive overview of the origins, making of, and post-production history of the film thanks to two commentaries (the first with Fred Dekker and the second with the cast) and a documentary which interviews just about everyone involved with the movie who is still around to be interviewed about it, including composer Barry De Vorzon and members of the make-up team who have since gone on to even greater things -- like Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman who appear on-screen as members of the Fraternity and get turned into zombies for the big campus invasion scene at the climax of the movie! There are also video interview featurettes with Fred Dekker and Tom Atkins which discuss their careers outside of their involvement with this particular film. Throughout all these extra features the director is thankful for the film’s new after-life on video, DVD and now Blu-ray, but honest about what he considers to be the mistakes of inexperience it highlights for him when re-watching it now. Also interviewed are contemporary fans that have discovered the movie only recently and enjoy it precisely because of the peak 1980s vibes it exudes.    

Sunday, 14 October 2018


Monkey Shines was the first feature to put George A. Romero in the director’s seat as a hired hand on a fully-fledged non-independent studio-backed production. Inspired by a pulp novel written by Michael Stewart, it was initially mooted for adaptation by independent producer Peter Grunwald, who proposed it as an investment opportunity for the American entrepreneur and sometime-producer Charles Evans (brother of the Hollywood production legend Robert Evans), with Romero only joining the project after it’d already received substantial backing from Orion Pictures. In spite of studio interference which resulted in the ending having to be radically reshot and altered after a bad preview screening, and despite being required this time to employ a great many outsiders on the crew rather than rely exclusively on his usual close-knit team of Pittsburgh-based collaborators, the film fits neatly into the overall Romero oeuvre, while presaging a certain taming of the anarchic spirit for which his name had hitherto been a byword. 

This being his first film since the anti-military gore-fest that was 1985’s Day of the Dead, the mainstream approach here is particularly noticeable. Even so, Romero was still the primary creative force on the project and was called upon by the producers to write the screenplay as well as direct the feature; so although his version apparently sticks fairly faithfully to the original source novel, it does place more emphasis than the book on a view of human nature that is relatable to the perpetual Jekyll and Hyde struggle many of Romero’s films portray as the key to understanding the social relations governing human interaction. In fact, Monkey Shines, in retrospect, can be considered the first entry in a trilogy of Romero films that feature murderous doppelgangers that take on a destructive physical form that represents the unacceptable or negative aspects of their protagonists’ overstressed psyches.  The Romero touch is still very much evident, then, even if the rough edges had to be somewhat sanded down on what was always going to be a relatively bloodless affair.

As well as the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, the film takes inspiration from certain elements of H.G. Wells's novella The Island of Dr Moreau, especially regarding its handling of the vivisection theme and its portrayal of animal experimentation in the name of scientific discovery – a topic that was also addressed in Day of the Dead in a much more graphically visceral and intense way than it is here. The Victorian short story Green Tea seems to have some degree of relevance as well. This was one of five supernatural tales constituting the 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly, by Sheridan Le Fanu. Ostensibly a story of the uncanny and the supernatural, it also in a veiled way addresses what can be the lonely silent struggle of those who face mental health issues, tackling the theme metaphorically through the story of a devout vicar who starts to see an impish spectral monkey everywhere he goes that is only visible to him and is able to read his mind. It exerts a malign influence at first by interrupting his prayers, until he feels that he can pray no more, and eventually the protagonist comes to believe that the creature communicates through him by actually influencing his actions: "Yes, yes, it is always urging me to crimes – to injure others, or myself!" he tells the sympathetic narrator at one point. The body of the victim who has been experiencing this bizarre manifestation is later found having committed suicide with a cutthroat razor.

A monkey and a cutthroat razor also appear in Monkey Shines, most likely inspired by Romero’s friend, the Italian director Dario Argento, and a scene in his 1985 movie Phenomena featuring a razor-wielding chimpanzee belonging to a disabled entomologist. Arguably, though, the more pertinent of several tableaux Romero builds around the theme for the film features the rogue monkey in question brandishing a hypodermic needle loaded with a lethal dosage, as she ‘experiments’ on her intended victim by holding flaming matches against their skin. This scene forms the crux of the movie’s tense climax, merging its Darwinian take on Jekyll and Hyde with an ironic reversal of the roles of experimenter and experimental subject -- as an incapacitated human observer finds that they are helpless to intervene in the macabre spectacle, much like the small group of anti-vivisectionist campaigners the film depicts protesting in the lot outside a lab where monkeys have been injected with cells from the temporal cortex of the human brain with the aim of increasing their intelligence.

These standard Romero themes concerning the expression of humankind’s essentially animalistic nature, are usually pitched in his films at the societal level. Day of the Dead also explored how institutionalised practices in the sciences can encourage a utilitarian attitude towards other animals that provides the means for us to remain in a state of denial about our own animal natures, a theme that reoccurs here in a domestic context as more a commentary on the fragility of adult masculinity expounded through a story in which a two-way psychic link is inadvertently created between a 
quadriplegic man and the female capuchin monkey trained to be his home help.

 Despite the outré subject matter, Romero mainly tackles it in broadly conventional terms. Cinematographer James A. Contner is primarily known as a TV cameraman and director, and his aesthetic style leads to a mise en scène that is fairly restrained and generic, like a 1970s TV Movie of the Week. Actor Jason Beghe, playing the lead role of Allan Mann, has the clean-cut conventionally handsome looks of a late-twentieth-century daytime American soap star, while the plot is pitched at much the same level, exploring its ideas through the prism of broad-brush melodrama and soap opera intrigues. Where the film particularly excels is in its editing. Romero’s regular editor since Knightriders, Pasquale Buba, does an astonishing job of crafting a believable performance from the facial expressions and actions of Boo the stunt monkey, edited with Tom Savini’s various puppet stand-ins to perfectly capture the illusion that this capuchin is a full participant in the emotional elements as well as in the action side of the narrative. Romero has understandably described Monkey Shines as his most ‘crafted’ film, and its conventional, invisible-too-the-viewer technique is a plus when it comes to persuading its audience to passively accept a feature like that which has had, out of necessity, to be painstakingly constructed from scratch in the edit.  

The film introduces Allan Mann to us as someone to aspire to -- the acme of masculinity -- defined through the physicality of his body. He has it all: good looks, robust athleticism, a gorgeous girlfriend -- and a bright future in Law, ready and waiting for him for when his athletics career eventually comes to an end. But, following in the tradition of tragic melodramas from time immemorial, all of this is taken away from him in an instant after a freak accident renders him paralysed from the neck down. His perfect life falls apart almost instantly: the girlfriend (Janine Turner) runs off with the surgeon (Stanley Tucci) who operated on him, and Mann is forced to rely on technology and a live-in nurse to help him with the basics such as feeding, washing and dressing. Unable to adjust to these reduced circumstances, Mann attempts suicide, and is only saved in the nick of time by his friend, research scientist Geoffrey Fisher (John Pankow), who’s been working on ways of increasing levels of intelligence using capuchin monkeys as test subjects, injecting them with a serum made from human brain cells in experiments conducted at a small lab run by his devious boss (Stephen Root).

Geoffrey has heard about a ‘helping hands’ program created specifically to train up monkeys that help quadriplegics with daily chores around the house. Because there is such huge demand for the service (and it takes time to train a monkey from scratch), he ‘donates’ his own best research subject, Ella, to be taught alongside Allan by trainer Melanie Parker (Kate McNeil); but he lies to her about the nature of the experimental research Ella has previously been exposed to. Romance blossoms between the caring Melanie and Allan, as she spends more and more of her time helping him learn to control and command the versatile Ella; but soon an equally intense and infinitely stranger relationship also develops in parallel between man and beast.

The film becomes an examination of what happens to a man whose identity has been founded on a physical demonstration of his masculinity, who suddenly loses that outlet as an expression of his identity. Caught between an overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten), who takes charge of bathing him using an embarrassing harness contraption suspended above the bath, and a fussy live-in-nurse (Romero’s ex-wife Christine Forrest, who also cast the film) employed to help administer to his needs but who treats him with the same patronising condescension as she reserves for her pet Budgerigar ‘Bogie’, Allan not only loses the ability to direct his own life but also his pride and his dignity. He finds himself caught in what to him has become a horrifying vice-grip of humiliation and infantilisation perpetuated by the dotting women who preside over this daily emasculating cycle of domestic frustration.

Ella the monkey is, in turn, reviled by these same women who seem unconsciously to see her as a threat to their status as primary carers, especially when Allan begins to form his unusual bond with the creature. Secretly injected on a regular basis by Geoffrey with brain cells taken from a human female, Ella starts to display peculiarly human traits, such as her tendency to respond to music. This is highlighted by her preference for the music of Peggy Lee which she plays on cassette while she works. As the monkey gets more humanlike, so Allan simultaneously becomes more animalistic and prone to savage bursts of spiteful anger directed at the people he feels have humiliated, cuckolded or thwarted him as a man.

This two-way ‘mind-meld’ cross-species identity crisis accentuates the evolutionary connections that already exist between the mind of man and primate. Romero symbolises the union with the image of Ella licking blood from Allan’s bitten lip, as though she were engaging with him in a romantic, distinctly human-like kiss. The psychic connection unleashes the primitive Id in Allan, interpreted in common religious mythology as the ’evil’ born of the fall of Man. Allan’s impotent rage fantasies of revenge duly filter through to Ella’s monkey consciousness and she begins carrying out the hateful acts his subconscious can no longer suppress or control. Allan’s unfaithful ex-wife and her lover are soon the number one targets, but so too are all the other women in his life who now control and dominate him, including his mother. Allan is able to see everything that happens to them through Ella’s eyes but is unable to turn off the flow of hate. 

The turning point of the narrative comes when Allan’s relationship with Ella’s former trainer Melanie becomes sexual, and Ella’s human-like feelings bring forth in her a jealousy that unleashes a veritable orgy of violence and confrontation involving Geoffrey, Melanie and Ella in a fight to the death for full dominance and control.

The film was not received well by audiences at the time of its release, and never really had much of a chance at the box office after being put up against Tom Cruise’s Cocktail. Disability groups were not too pleased with it either. Specifically, they objected to the terrible ad campaign devised by Orion Pictures that led to some theatres in the States being subjected to protests. In truth, there is something slightly iffy about the premise of the movie from the point of view of disability rights: it does rather depend on a common trope in fiction where the villain is given a disability that confines them to a wheelchair simply so as to provide writers with a trite backstory to account for the frustration, dependency and impotence of the character, which must then be compensated for with a tendency to dominate and control through other means, inevitably resulting in criminality and immorality.

But the film is actually attempting to critique the more general issue of how our received ideas about strength and masculinity get rooted in able bodied-ness by society and can impact negatively on our ideas and assumptions regarding how the sexes should relate to each other. But by addressing this theme in the form of an evolutionary Jekyll and Hyde genre story that sources our conception of evil in primitive urges that can only ever be papered over by the civilised norms we create through the workings of our higher-cortex functionality, such ambitions rather tend to get lost in the mix, leaving Romero open to having the subtlety of his original intentions misinterpreted. The film tries hard to appeal to a mainstream horror audience but it also features a protagonist who becomes less and less likeable as it progresses. Things are confused further by a thwarted and, as the film stands, an unnecessary subplot, involving John Pankow’s idealistic, driven, drug-addicted research scientist Geoffrey Fisher and his cynical, business-minded, pro-vivisectionist boss Doctor Burbage (Stephen Root). This was originally intended to pay off with a final scene where it was to be revealed that Burbage had harvested the remaining vials of Fisher’s serum. Both actors deliver enjoyable, high energy performances, but this element of the story fell by the wayside after the studio used negative audience reaction during previews to force Romero to come back and replace the original ending with a Carrie-like final shock for the last reel, which even the director admitted was a lazy rip-off of the ‘chest bursting’ scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien. This re-shoot, incidentally, also resulted in Romero being unavailable to start work on his ‘dream’ project Pet Cemetery, which instead went to Mary Lambert.

Away from the issues and controversies of the time, and with the dust settled on our understanding of his career now that we can see the completed larger canvass on which the late Romero’s relationship with the horror genre was eventually constructed, it’s possible to appreciate Monkey Shines for what it is: a quietly satirical deconstruction of male fragility disguised as a mainstream horror romp. In trying to please everybody, Romero may well have alienated many of the fans whose imagination he first galvanised with the uncompromising gore-drenched vision at the heart of his Dead trilogy ... at least at the time. But nowadays Monkey Shines seems considerably less polarising: a flawed but well-constructed morality play, it often does manage to present large amounts of perversity and borderline surrealism in such an understated manner that you don’t fully appreciate the oddness of it all. It is extremely gratifying to have this film at last presented as a special edition dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release in the UK, with Eureka Entertainment providing all the bells and whistles this entails. There are a whole bunch of extras here, including a new commentary by Travis Crawford, and an older one by George A. Romero -- although Crawford’s ends up seeming rather superfluous and resorts to listing the filmographies of the cast. By the end he’s even listing the entire filmographies of Romero’s contemporaries as well, suggesting that Romero’s informative commentary track and the lengthy retrospective documentary also included on the disc, An Experiment in Fear – The Making of Monkey Shines, had already covered the bases with its discussion of the details of the production as well as coverage of pre- and post-production too. Deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage and the alternative ending nixed by the studio are presented, along with the original EPK materials produced at the time for TV promotional purposes. Finally, trailers and TV spots are included and there’s a limited edition collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Craig Martin along with archival materials, which rounds off a release that features DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 audio options, optional English SDH titles, and a 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray. The first print run will also include a limited edition O Card slipcase.