Friday, August 12, 2022

Joan Crawford Creates a Deadly Buzz in "Queen Bee"

Joan Crawford felt the title character of the novel Queen Bee was perfect for her. How right she was!

Hi-Keebah and hello, movie lovers.

I want to take a moment to talk about bees.

Did you know there are over 20,000 species of bees? The smallest is the Perdita minima, which measures only 2mm, while the largest, the Megachile pluto, boasts a wingspan of 2.5. inches.

There are honey bees, bumble bees, stingless bees, mason bees and leafcutter bees. Bees can be social and live in hives (as honey bees do) or they can be solitary and live alone (as carpenter bees prefer).

Bees make honey, of course, but they also produce beeswax, pollen, Royal Jelly and Propolis, which bees use to water-proof their homes. Propolis, by the way, is also a natural antibiotic.

"It's good to bee the queen!"

The star of any colony of bees is the queen. This is because of her size and birthing abilities. Male bees are wild to have sex with the queen, after which they promptly die (but at least they die happy). In order to maintain her position in the hive, the queen will seek out and kill her "sister queens" with her reusable stinger.

Who's the deadliest bee of all?

Without a doubt, that would be Eva Phillips, the centerpiece of the 1955 buzz bomb "Queen Bee".

As portrayed by Joan Crawford, Eva Phillips is a real piece of work. Her tongue is as sharp as an ice pick and her glare is as deadly as Medusa's. What's more, Eva's need to control and humiliate everyone around her rivals that of my 10th grade PE teacher. Easy going she's not.

In fact, the flick has barely gotten started when we learn that 1) Eva tricked her mega rich husband Avery (Barry Sullivan) into marrying her, 2) she caused the car accident that left an ugly scar on his face and 3) Avery's very serious drinking problem can be traced directly to his unhappy marriage (any attempt to get a divorce has been blocked by Eva threatening blackmail).

"We are not amused": Eva Phillips (Joan Crawford). Is it just me or does she look a bit like Better Davis here?

And that's not all! The woman Avery was suppose to marry, Sue McKinnon (Fay Wray), was so traumatized after being left at the alter, she suffered a nervous breakdown and is now behaving like Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (but she gets out more).

Anything else?

Oh, yeah, Eva either neglects her two kids or terrorizes them AND she once had a torrid affair with Jud Prentiss (John Ireland) who is now engaged to Carol Phillips (Betsy Palmer), her sister-in-law!

Well, as you can imagine, that last bit of information doesn't sit well with Eva, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.

"Queen Bee" starts with poor relation Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) arriving at the Phillips' mega-mansion. She's just graduated from college and Eva has invited her for a visit. At first, Crawford couldn't be nicer or more welcoming to Jen; she even spruces up her wardrobe, arranges for her to date hunky rich guy Ty McKinnon (William Leslie) and fills her in on all the social niceties.

Recent college graduate Jenny (Lucy Marlow) is the newest drone in the Phillips hive.

However, her relatives warn Jen not to be fooled by Eva's gracious hostess act. Comparing her to--what else?--a buzzing bee, Carol cautions Marlow, "She'll sting you one day. Oh, ever so gently, so you hardly even feel it--till you drop dead."

Of course, the naive Jennifer doesn't believe that's possible, even though Eva has slowly but surely turned Jen into her personal maid. What finally changes Jen's mind is watching Eva, riding crop in hand, smashing Carol's bedroom to bits as she complains about how rotten her in-laws are.

"I'm an outsider!" Eva seethes, waiving her riding crop around. "They hate outsiders...You don't know how they are! You don't know the things they've made me do to protect myself!" (Crawford starts pounding Carol's stuff into pieces.) "You don't know how they are!" Eva wails. "But you'll find out! As I have! How they whisper, small talk, laugh as if you have to be from the south to be any good!" (Eva's voice becomes shrill as she continues to destroy everything in her sight.) "Oh, they're so smug and namby-pamby! I wish I could get rid of them as easily as this trash!"

Finally calming down, Eva surveys the wreckage of Carol's room and replies, "Well! I've never known when I've been in such a temper!"--and walks away.


"A docile dog can be slapped by a courageous chicken"--An African Proverb.

Later on, Jennifer excitedly tells Eva that Jud and Carol are engaged. Her reaction? Crawford gives Jen a loud smack across the face and stomps off in a huff. See, once upon a time, Jud and Eva were having a torrid affair until Eva dumped Jud for Avery. However, Eva simply can't stand the idea of Jud being with another woman; if she can't have him, nobody can! So Crawford starts trying to stop the wedding.

First, Eva suggests that if Jud and Carol marry too quickly, the neighbors will think they "had" to get married. When that doesn't work, Eva puts on her frilliest house coat and meets Jud in the middle of the night.

"Isn't there anything left of us?" Eva throbs, before giving Judd a big, open mouthed kiss.

"You're like some fancy disease," Jud replies after he untangles himself. "I had it once; now I'm immune."

After Jud's rebuff, Eva brings out the big guns. She marches over to Carol and announces, "Any mans MY MAN if I want it that way!" Then she loftily informs her sister-in-law that the long list of women Jud has had affairs with includes her. Say it isn't so! This revelation so upsets Carol she wanders out to the horse barn and offs herself.

"Hmmm. What would Bette Davis do?": Eva wears her frilliest house dress to ensnare a wary Jud (John Ireland).

This last stunt proves too much for the lush Avery. So he cuts back on the booze and begins formulating a plan to kill Eva. It's too complicated to explain here, but it involves a party invitation, a fancy piece of jewelry Eva's always wanted and Avery and Jennifer admitting they're attracted to each other. However, once Jud figures out Avery's scheme, he decides to kill Eva instead.

So, on a dark and stormy night, Jud arranges to take Eva to a fancy-pants party...and promptly drives them off a cliff.

The next morning, Avery and Jennifer commiserate about the tragic accident that took Jud and Eva and  declare they're madly in love. The end or a new beginning? Since there wasn't a sequel, we'll never know.

On it's own, "Queen Bee" is pretty dreary. The only reason to watch is to witness Joan Crawford doing her stuff. Never in the same Jean Louis outfit twice, Crawford stalks, flaunts, flounces, schemes, snaps, screams, thrashes, slaps, insults, harangues, prims and preens. She's a tidal wave of star power and she knocks her co-stars over like bowling pins as she acts and acts and ACTS. In fact, "Queen Bee" is practically a one-woman show; the only reason Crawford has co-stars is because she needed people to be mean to.

By the time Joan was appearing in "Queen Bee", she was no longer had a studio contract. As a "freelancer", Crawford could accept work from any studio, but that meant finding the right projects for herself. Fortunately, Joan knew a hot property when she saw it. After she'd read the Edna Lee novel Queen Bee, she purchased the rights. When Columbia studios decided to make the book into a movie, Crawford was ready. Besides playing the lead, Joan insisted on Jerry Wald producing, Ranald McDougall handling the writing/directing chores and Charles Lang as her cinematographer. Furthermore, Joan wanted final approval over who would do her make-up, hairstyling and clothes. Columbia agreed everything.

Eva Phillips trashing her sister-in-laws bedroom: "Well! I've never known when I was in such a temper." 

Although you can admire Crawford for taking the helm in getting "Queen Bee" on the silver screen, Joan's snarling out-of-this-world performance didn't impress a lot movie critics.

 The tome Bad Movies We Love  by Edward Margulies and Stephen Rebello (which includes "Queen Bee" in their chapter "Viva las Divas") declared, "From the moment Joan Crawford makes her grand entrance into this overblown penny's clear why this is the movie most beloved by the star's fans as well as by her detractors--and for exactly the same reasons." The authors point out that "there's not an inch of film wasted on anyone but Crawford" who "vamps around her mansion" while she cuts "the rest of the cast down to size." 

Meanwhile, in his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther complained that director/writer McDougall had allowed Crawford to "flaunt her noxiousness and bad acting all over the place" while poor Barry Sullivan merely "blinks and boozes" and Lucy Marlow just "gawks and quakes". When Jud finally kills Eva, Crowther sniffed, "Nothing has really been achieved except a mawkish manifestation of cheap dramatics." 

 Clyde Gilmour (of Canada's McClean's Magazine) couldn't have agreed more. He described Eva "as a self-adoring psychotic empress" and felt the flick itself  was a "vintage item for the Joan Crawford Fan Club, but a bit of an ordeal for non-members like me."

Even Francois Truffaut--yes, that Francois Truffaut--wasn't impressed. According to The Early Film Criticism of Francois Truffaut by Wheeler Winston Dixon, an exploration of Mr. Truffaut's film reviews for Cathiers du Cinema before he turned to directing, the French auteur had this to say about "Queen Bee":  the acting "is not absolutely bad, but weak, very weak, including Joan Crawford's". He described the "mise-en-scene" as "clumsy" and felt Crawford resembled "both an octopus and a spider". The future director of "The 400 Blows" felt Joan was "absolutely ridiculous when directed by a filmmaker who precisely fears ridicule." Truffaut ultimately dismisses the flick as a "slightly indigestible and in the long run tedious cinematic food." He also added that "the future works" of director McDougall "I don't really feel like seeing."

The "Queen Bee" relaxing in her boudoir.


Last, but not least, the website Flickchart ranked "Queen Bee" as number five on their "Twenty Worst Films of Joan Crawford" list. The top vote getters were "Trog", "Reunion in France", "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" and "Berserk". The inclusion of "The Hollywood Revue" surprised me. A Pre-Code musical and one of the earliest talking films, parts of  "The Hollywood Revue" were shot in color and it was a hit with both audiences and critics. Meanwhile, "Grand Hotel"--another classic-- makes it in at number 13. Go figure.

While "Queen Bee" may not have made much buzz at the box office, it did give viewers a Master Class in over-the-top scenery chewing. In fact, not even Patricia Neal in "The Fountainhead" or Faye Dunaway in "The Eyes of Laura Mars"--two completely unhinged performances by any measure--can top Joan's historionics here.

And wherever she, I know that makes Joan very proud.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, bees who have honey in their mouths (like Eva) have stings in their tails (also like Eva).

And while you're helping me to SAVE THE MOVIES, SAVE THE HONEY BEES, too.

A movie poster for "Queen Bee": 100% nightmare fuel at its finest.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Junk Cinema Remembers Olivia Newton-John


"Grease is the Word": Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta as Sandy and Danny in "Grease" (1978).

Singer/actress/health advocate Olivia Newton-John passed away on August 8th, 2022, after a long battle with breast cancer.

Born in England, but raised in Australia, Olivia first found fame as the sweet-voiced soprano of such mid-'70's hits as "Have You Never Been Mellow?", "I Honestly Love You" and "Please, Mister, Please." Then, in 1978, she co-starred opposite John Travolta in the mega-hit musical "Grease".

A parody of 1950's cliches, "Grease" told the story of teenagers Sandy and Danny, who enjoyed a summer romance while vacationing at the beach. However, when the new school year starts at Rydell High, the duo are unexpectedly reunited. The problem? Sandy's the very definition of a goody-two-shoes, while Danny the second-in-command of the T-Bird gang. How could they ever be together?

However, thanks to a make-over that turns Sandy into a frizzy haired, leather clad siren who asks Danny, "How's it goin' stud?" true love prevails.

"Grease" was not only a world-wide smash, it's soundtrack spawned the hits "Grease (Is the Word)", "Greased Lightin'", "Summer Nights", "Beauty School Drop-Out", "You're the One that I Want", (Look at Me) I'm Sandra Dee" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You."

"Xana-don't!": Olivia and Michael Beck in the musical misfire "Xanadu" (1980).

The success of "Grease" made Olivia seem like The Next Big Thing in movies; alas, it was not to be. 

Her next film was "Xanadu" (1980), a musical misfire that was as big a bomb as "Grease" was a hit. Although the film's soundtrack produced the hit singles "Xanadu", "You Have to Believe (We Are Magic)" and "I'm Alive", critics weren't impressed. Esquire magazine, for example, told its readers, "In a word: Xana-don't!".Variety called "Xanadu" a "stupendously bad film" and Leonard Maltin's Movie &Video Guide called the flick "flashy but empty headed." Today, "Xanadu" best remembered for inspiring the Golden Raspberry Awards (the Razzies) where the year's worst film achievements are celebrated. 

However, Olivia didn't let "Xanadu"s failure get her down. In 1981, she released the song "Let's Get Physical" and created a whole new image for herself. She also married, had a child and opened a boutique called Koala Blue--I still have my Koala Blue shoulder bag, by the way.

In 1992, Olivia was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She would fight the disease on and off for 30 years, advocating for more research and treatments, especially the use of cannabis oil to help with pain.

For appearing in "Grease", for helping to inspire the Razzie Awards and for advocating for cancer research and treatment, Olivia Newton-John, Junk Cinema (and the world) salutes you!

Olivia gets "Physical".

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Road To Ruin Is Paved With Good Intentions ...And Bad Movies


Money problems can get the best of anyone.

Greetings, movie lovers.

Are you experiencing cash flow problems? 

Would you like to earn more money?

Of course you would.

Unfortunately, you're too old for a paper route, too young to collect Social Security, the Publishers Cleaning House Sweeps Steaks keeps passing you by (no matter how many times you enter) and marrying for money isn't an option.

"And that's how you make air.": Walter White trying (and failing) to interest his students in chemistry.

In situations such as these, people often find it necessary to seek out a part-time job, something that won't interfere with their regular gig, but will add some much needed dough to their bottom line. However, finding such a position can be difficult and lead to unexpected complications.

Just ask Walter White.

Mr. White (played by Bryan Cranston, the thinking gal's Kevin Bacon) is the main character in "Breaking Bad" (2008-2013). He's a high school chemistry teacher slowly being crushed under the weight of his exsistance: his teaching salary is chicken feed; his students think he's a dink; his tetchy wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) is pregnant with a "surprise baby" and his teenage son (RJ Mitte) is a moody kid who favors Uncle Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent with a big mouth and racist opinions, over his more straight-laced dad. On top of everything else, Walt has cancer. Terminal lung cancer, to be exact.

Ouch. Does this guy need a hug or what?

A hug might be nice, but what Walter really needs is money. Lots of it. Right now. With the cost of his cancer treatment skyrocketing with each visit, Walt becomes frantic about keeping his family out of Debtors Prison--before and after he dies.

The Batman and Robin of Meth: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

His solution?

Take a part-time job... cooking Meth.

But not just any Meth! Walter plans on using his superior science skills to cook-up a batch of Meth so pure and potent, drug addicts everywhere will be dying for it.

Of course, to get the product out to the public, Mr. White needs someone who understands the market. As luck would have it, Walt unexpectedly reunites with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), an addle-brained former pupil he duly flunked back in the day. Jesse is now a low-level drug dealer and Meth addict. However, Walt figures the combination of his science skills and Jesse's contacts will give him just the right edge he needs. Jesse initially rejects this opportunity, but after Walt blackmails him, he quickly changes his mind. Of course, Walt makes it clear they will only be peddling Meth until he builds up a nest egg for his family; when that's done, business is concluded.

Sounds like a great plan, right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

"Your shoes don't go with that apron!": Drug dealer Krazy 8 (Max Arciniega) takes aim at Walter White's fashion sense.

How about everything?

Now, if you're a fan of "Breaking Bad", you already know Walt and Jesse get mixed up in some pretty ugly shit: crazy drug dealers, explosions, murder, car crashes, unhinged drug users, neglected children, White Supremacists, over doses, shoot outs, shady lawyers (better call Saul!) and drug kingpins who don't hesitate to knock off kids.

 "Breaking Bad" has been rightfully praised for it's superior acting/writing/direction. However, it wasn't the first TV series/movie of the week that explored the extraordinary lengths cash-strapped folks would go to make ends meet.

As is so often the case, Junk Cinema was already covering this topic years before anybody else was.

See, TV movies from the '70's, '80's and early '90's regularly churned out cautionary tales featuring a cross section of the Americans who would find themselves "breaking bad"...usually by becoming hookers. 

Housewife hookers Linda Purl, Jamie Lee Curtis and Karen Valentine discuss the finer points of their job in "Money on the Side."

This Junk Cinema sub-genre not only allows (the mostly female) performers to act up a storm, it also provides viewers with an All You Can Eat Bad Movie Buffet of big hair, shoulder pads, moralizing judges and kooky dialog. The movies were also promoted using nifty slogans like, "Sex. Who Pays When a Housewife Turns Hooker?" (that's from "Money on the Side".) And they utilized exotic locations like London, New York, Russia and Montrose, California. Below is a combo platter of some the nuttier offerings this genre spawned.

*"Money on the Side" (1982)--A trio of desperate housewives (including Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis) need money for bills and stuff, so they begin working for real estate lady Susan Flannery (the future Stephanie Forrester on "The Bold and the Beautiful").

 Unfortunately, Flannery's real estate business is merely cover for an escort ring. The gals turn tricks because it's good money and, well, it's better than making Happy Meals for five hours straight. Of course, the law is on to Flannery and soon everybody's in the slammer. Linda Purl is so horrified her kid will learn the truth about mom's part-time job, she hangs herself. Karen Valentine, meanwhile, tries to explain to her astonished husband (Richard Masur) that she and her fellow doxies were "just people" trying to make some extra money. 

 "What I did, I did for us!" Karen screams. Unconvinced, hubby leaves her high and dry.

*"Katie: Portrait of a Centerfold" (1978)--Future Oscar winner Kim Basinger foolishly goes off to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. Things get pretty bleak pretty fast and viewers are asked to consider which is worse: being unemployed or having to share an apartment with mimes.  Anyway, when she can't make the rent, Kim falls in with a scuzzy "modeling agency" and is soon forced, for economic reasons, to pose topless. 

In an interesting twist, Basinger would go on to pose for "Playboy" magazine and, unlike her character in this movie, didn't feel one bit ashamed.

* "The Mayflower Madam" (1987)--Sydney Biddle Barrows was an FIT graduate and a descendant of one the original passengers on the Mayflower. When she's fired from her department store job, Sydney (played by a pre-"Murphy Brown" Candice Bergen) goes to work for a nasty pimp answering his phones. Horrified by the shoddy way he runs his business, Bergen decides to set up her own shop called "Cachet". Recruiting nice, clean, healthy gals who dream of being actresses and going to med school, Sydney gives them all make overs and provides tips on how to be "a real lady." Soon business is booming and Sydney and her girls celebrate with picnics at Central Park and balloon rides. Bergen even helps her hookers study their lines for acting auditions! What a great boss! Best of  all, Sydney finds herself a rich boyfriend.

However, there's a price to pay for all this illicit activity.

Sydney Biddle Barrows (Candice Bergen, far left) and her happy hookers go shopping with their ill-gotten gains in "The Mayflower Madam."

One day, Sydney's killjoy landlord turns her in to the cops and the whole sordid mess ends up making headlines ("The Mayflower Madam Ran a Tight Ship!" yelled one paper). Everybody goes to jail (one hooker is even arrested seconds before making her Broadway debut) and Sydney's friends and family are aghast at what she's done. Bergen is shunned by her high society crowd and, even worse, her rich boyfriend dumps her. Look for the real Sydney Biddle Barrows in a cameo.

* "Co-Ed Call Girl" (1996)--One of the greatest TV movies of all time...and one of the most hilarious.

Joanna (Tori Spelling, in the role she was born to play) is the world's dumbest pre-med student. Stressed out by her studies and feeling guilty about the long hours her widowed ma (Susan Blakely) puts in at their family's bakery to support her, Joanna stumbles into a call girl ring run by the slick and sick Ron Tamblin (Scott Plank). 

Poor Tori actually thinks her job as an "escort" merely requires her to show up on "dates" with assigned men to be pretty and charming at social events, not having to, you know, sleep with the guy.  (One of the other escorts gives Joanna this tip when she has bed down with a "date" she finds less-than-appealing: "Just pretend he's Brat Pitt.") At first the money seems good and Joanna can go on some shopping sprees, but when her, um, "dates" start insisting on getting physical, Spelling begins to have second thoughts. When Tori works up the courage to tell her boss she's quitting ("My heart's not in it anymore!" Joanna wails), Ron screams back, "I don't care about your heart! Just this body and what it can do for me!"

As all Lifetime movies must, there's a fight over a gun and Tori ends up on trial for attempted murder. However, because the cops have been wanting to bust Ron for some time, Joanna ends up giving states evidence (I think) and Ron is sent to jail for, like, a million years. Spelling, meanwhile, is set free, sadder but wiser, but, alas, still in debt.

"I have to do what?!" Tori Spelling is shocked SHOCKED! to learn that her "Co-Ed Call Girl" duties include having sex with her "dates."

Although "Co-Ed Call Girl" was a ratings smash, reviews were less than complimentary. In fact, The New York Daily News' critic dubbed it "The Worst Tori Ever Told" and claimed Spelling gave "the single worst starring performance on TV" that year. "Co-Ed Call Girl" also won an esteemed place on the "50 Most Ridiculous Lifetime Movies" list compiled by the website In case you're interested, it placed 49th.

*"Secret Weapons" (aka "Secrets of the Red Bedroom"(1985)--The KGB, always on the look out for ways to defeat the west, recruits and trains Russian gals to seduce and blackmail American diplomats. Because life under Communism is awful (there are shortages for everything) and the typical Soviet dad is a drunken pig, the government has no problem finding females willing to join up.

Elena Kolsov (future "Beauty and the Beast" and "Terminator" heroine Linda Hamilton) is one such gal. Working under the strict tutelage of Sally Kellerman (who tells her pupils, "America's religion is sex."), Linda loses her Russian accent, gets a make over, learns how to fire a gun and becomes acquainted with American food like hot dogs. Soon enough, Linda and her friend Tamara (future Oscar winner Geena Davis) are targeting unsuspecting Yanks with their feminine wiles.

One such unfortunate mark is Christopher Atkins, the heart throb from "The Blue Lagoon" and the crackpot Roger Corman classic "Dracula Rising". He plays the son of a Steve Jobs-ish computer genius who was brought to the USSR to "broaden his horizons." When Elena asks Chris what he does all day, he says, "The same thing I do at home: I get up late in the morning and I go to bed late at night."

"And in between?" she asks.

"You aren't too smart are you? I like that in a man.": Elena sizes up her next patsy (Christopher Atkins) in "Secret Weapons".

"Drink," he replies.

Then Chris pulls out a joint and declares, "When Lenin or whoever it was that said religion was the opiate of the people, I bet he never tasted this stuff!" 

Right on cue the cops burst in and an International Incident is born.

 Elena feels guilty for trapping such a harmless twit as Chris, so she decides to quit being a "grande horizontale" for Mother Russia and works out an elaborate plot to defect to America. Don't you love a happy ending? 

*"Half-Moon Street" (1986)--The towering Sigourney Weaver takes a break from fighting off alien beasties with concentrated acid for blood in the "Alien" series, to fighting off the high cost of living in "Half-Moon Street".

Over- educated and under-paid, Dr. Lauren Slaughter (Sigourney Weaver) decides working for an escort service is a smart move.

Although she has a Ph.D and lectures at a snooty London institute, Dr. Lauren Slaughter (Weaver) is paid peanuts and lives in a crummy apartment where there's never enough hot water. Needing to augment her salary, Lauren receives a mysterious VHS cassette (it was the '80's remember) extolling the virtues of working as a paid escort for the tony Jasmine Agency. Because escorting offers flexible hours and good pay, Lauren signs up. (Unlike poor Tori Spelling, Dr. Slaughter does get to decide if she wants to bed down with a client. For example, when a Japanese "date" offends her, Weaver announces, "I decide what I do after dinner. And in your case, it's no. Definitely no.")

 Lauren meets Lord Bulbeck (Sir Michael Caine) on another for her "dates.". An MP and terrorist expert, Caine dabbles with escorts because he hates dating. Turns out Lauren enjoys "uncomplicated sex", so the two really hit it off. When Lord Bulbeck asks Dr. Slaughter if she's ever worried about her physical safety (or catching an STD) while out on her rounds, Weaver cheerfully reassures him, "I have a gynecologist who knows karate." (Which great for the Obgyn, but what about her?)

Unbeknownst to Dr. S, Lord Bulbeck is involved in an anti-terrorist plot/sting/operation and the government is using her to lure out the assassin/baddie. Of course, Weaver knows none of this and is pretty miffed when she's almost killed during the flick's climatic shoot out.

Later on, Caine brings Lauren flowers and apologizes for almost getting her killed. And using her as a pawn in a government operation without telling her. Weaver accepts his apology and the two kiss and make-up. Dr. Slaughter quits the Jasmine Agency and it appears our cuddlemates will live happily ever after.

After pondering these flicks, I believe the following points can be made:

"Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee!":Tori Spelling tries to deal with the shame of starring in "Co-Ed Call Girl."

Point Number One: It's almost too easy for gals feeling the financial pinch to get roped into prostitution rings or "Escort Services" least according to TV.

Point Number Two: The United States really needs to beef up its social safety net. Karen Valentine's character in "Money on the Side", for example, started hooking to pay for the long-term care needed by her son. Tori Spelling, mind you, became an escort to help pay for med-school. All of those against universal health insurance or free-community college, please take note.

Point Number Three: I think some smart producer is missing out on not making a sequel to "Half Moon Street." My idea is this: Lord Bulbeck and Dr. Slaughter get married, have some kids and then he's in the running to be Prime Minister. What happens when Weaver's "escort" past comes out into the open? A PM with a wife who was once a hooker? Now that's a movie begging to be made!

Point Number Four: Tori Spelling is right up there with Pia Zadora and Delores Fuller (from "Glen or Glenda?") as one of the worst actresses of all time. Watching Tori's perpetually stupified expression as one of her "dates" (a temperamental concert pianist/conductor) orders her to strip as he bangs away on the piano (no pun intended) is a hysterical high light. And what gal defending herself against attempted murder charges would wear high heels and a mini skirt to court?

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, tough times financially are no excuse to sell Meth...or yourself. And help me SAVE THE MOVIES!

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Junk Cinema Spotlights The "Deathstalker" Series Because, Well, Somebody Has To


A poster for one of Roger Corman's "Deathstalker" flicks. Psst: The actors don't look anything like this in the movie.

Greetings, movie lovers.

If you're a regular reader of this blog--and, really, who isn't?--you know I published a post on "Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell" in November of 2021. The flick in question was a piece of processed cheese lovingly churned from deep within the bowels of the Roger Corman film factory.

However, that particular movie was actually the third of four films Mr. Corman produced based on this character; the other entries were "Deathstalker" (1983), "Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans" (1987) and "Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans" (1990).

As a series, the "Deathstalker" flicks were a cavalcade of bad acting, bad hair, bad make-up, bad costumes, bad direction, bad writing and bad F/X. They also featured more gratuitous female nudity than Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video, making them a shrine to 14 year old boys (and horny old men) everywhere.

However, because the "Deathstalker" flicks are so eye-rollingly bad, I decided to profile them. Later on, I changed my mind and decided a "group profile" might be easier to produce and less time consuming on my part. Therefore, if you're wondering what the "Deathstalker" movies are about OR which entry in the series is right for you, relax. I have created a handy-dandy "cheat sheet" that explains everything--well, not everything everything, but a lot of everything--you need to know about this crummy, cut-rate "Conan the Barbarian" rip-off.

 "Paging Marc Singer.": Rick Hill is the star of two (!) Deathstalker flicks.

Let's begin, shall we?

First, a little clarification.

There is a series of nine novels called Deathstalker written by Brit Simon R. Greene. They are described by Wikipedia as both a send-up and homage of 1950's science fiction. As created by Mr. Greene, the Deathstalker character is named Owen Deathstalker and he's "catapulted from a life of quiet luxury and academic pursuit" to fight evil forces and stuff.

However, the Deathstalker I am writing about is not based on this character! I don't know how Corman avoided copyright infringement etc.,  but he did, because the Deathstalker appearing in these flicks is no academic and he certainly isn't named Owen.

Then who is Deathstalker?

 The first Deathstalker novel, which the "Deathstalker" movies are not based on.

That's not an easy question to answer. The best I can judge is he's a super fighter/warrior who lives in either Middle Earth, ancient Britain or the Renaissance Festival from Hell. He often has to chase down a magic object and help rescue some princess. He's a wonder to behold...but then, so is a microwave. Because three actors played this part--one played it twice, in fact-- they each bring their own unique sensibilities to the interpretation of this role.

Rick Hill was the first actor to tackle this character; he would return for part four. Looking like Will Ferrell's younger, pumped-up, stoner brother, with a bit of Marc Singer thrown in, Hill's Deathstalker is distinguished by a mile-long stare, a droning voice and a no-nonsense view of life: "I steal and kill to stay alive. Not for the luxury of glory." Good to know.

Jeff Terlesky, who played Deathstalker in entry two, on the other hand, is an easy-going guy with an eye for the ladies who isn't opposed to any get-rich-quick scheme that comes his way. With his fluffy, feathered hair, he resembles "Dance Fever" host Deney Terrio and is the most vain Deathstalker of the bunch. When he's about to face torture, Terlesky screams, "Not the hair! Not the hair! Anything but the hair!"

Then there is John Allen Nelson, star of  "Warriors from Hell" fame. He tries to play Deathstalker as an English soldier of fortune, but bails on the accent after about 10 minutes. He's also a jerk who complains about his poor pay and working conditions, but enjoys the endless stream of nooky opportunities his calling provides.

What are his quests?

 Deathstalker (Rick Hill again) unsheathes his mighty sword.

In part one, Deathstalker is sent by an old, nagging hag to find a chalice, an amulet and a sword, which will give him the powers to defeat an evil sorcerer. In part two, he helps a princess and has to wrestle a beefy Amazon. In part three, he helps a homeless princess find a land for her people. In part four, Deathstalker battles lots of stock footage and finds love.

Who are his enemies?

The first baddie Deathstalker faces is an evil sorcerer named Munkar (Bernard Erhard). He's not only taken over King Tulak's (Horacio Marassi) kingdom, but he's snatched his daughter Princess Codille (Barbi Benton), too. Munkar dresses like TV's "Maude" and has a tattoo that jumps from one side of his face to the next. He also has a slimy puppet pet that eats human eyeballs called Howard.

In part two, Deathstalker faces another evil sorcerer named Jarek and his sultry side-kick Sultana. A ditsy Princess named Evie (Monique Gabrielle) employs Deathstalker to help her regain her throne and free her subjects from Jarek's horrible grasp. To make ends meet, Evie stumbles around as a freelance "seer" or fortune teller until she can find a champion for her cause. There is also a Princess Evie evil twin, although one Princess Evie was more than enough, thank you.

Which brings us to part three, where Deathstalker faces Troxartas (Thom Christopher), a bald baddie who dresses like Julius Ceasre and Rudolph Valentino, depending on his mood. Troxartas is so obsessed with finding the magic city of Arandor that he neglects his sex-hungry wife and commands a bunch of zombie-like warriors to do his bidding because he keeps their souls in a mason jar.

"Dazed and Confused": Deathstalker #2 (Jeff Terlesky) and Princess Evie (Monique Gabrielle).

In the final "Deathstalker" outing, our hero meets up with yet another princess in disguise and yet another evil sorcerer--only this time the evil sorcerer is an evil sorceress named Queen Kana. She aims to ensure her rule by turning all the mighty warriors in the tri-state area into freaks who only serve her. She does this by arranging sports competitions that lure these chunks into her web of evil. Or something like that.

"Deathstalker"s "female problem".

Unfortunately, the "Deathstalker" series is not distinguished by its enlightened view of women. Females in these movies exist to either get assaulted, get nude or get laid (by the Deathstalker or somebody else). Whether they are good or bad, the gals wear skimpy outfits that are neither practical or flattering. For instance, Marinda (from "Warriors from Hell" fame) resides in a shack surrounded by rocky terrain, dangerous mountainside paths that come with no guard rails and a fog-shrouded forest. The weather always looks to be about 65 degrees with a chance of rain. Therefore, Marinda's get-up of a super-short mini skirt and pixie boots seem better suited for an extra in an '80's hair band video than this craggy and forbidding landscape.

As noted earlier, women are assaulted in these flicks a lot. One of the ugliest of these encounters  involves Princess Codile (Barbi Benton) and a slimy, snot-covered pig man beast. Did I mention a crowd of on-lookers are cheering the swine as he readies to attack the princess? Barb is saved by Deathstalker at the last possible minute, but that scene is nasty.

However, if you think Deathstalker's heroic actions place him above the rancid, sub-mental brutes that populate these flicks, think again. In the first "Deathstalker", a group of robbers drag a female extra into a deserted gazebo to assault her. Deathstalker Rick Hill arrives out of nowhere and fights the bandits off. After they run away, Hill turns his attention to the kidnapped gal and decides to finish what they started. YUCK!

Shame on you, Roger Corman.

"Is somebody gonna sign for this?": Deathstalker (Rick Hill) wants to know what to do with Princess Codile (Barbi Benton).

"Who wants to know?"

I've always maintained that the backstory of a how a bad movie got made is just as important--and just as entertaining--as the flick itself. And the "Deathstalker" series is no exception.

For example, "Deathstalker"#2 was filmed in Argentina on a studio lot located right next to an airport and a highway. Naturally, this made sound recording pretty difficult. What's more, reportedly the studio lot had more garbage than a nearby landfill. There were tire fires, too.

Roger Corman has never met a budget that was too tight or a shooting schedule that was too short. So it's not surprising that "Deathstalker"#1 was cranked out in 37 days...or that the "magic orb" Princess Evie uses for her "predictions" in "Deathstalker"#2 is actually a doorknob. Through out the series, Corman was happy to recycle footage, soundtracks and costumes from previous films. Several actors even played multiple parts, another Corman trademark.

It seems that "Deathstalker"#2 was always having problems. With time running out and reportedly no finished script in sight, director Jim Wynorski and leading man John Terlesky put their heads together and came up with an outline for the rest of the movie that was partly inspired by Bugs Bunny cartoons. Terlesky also ad-libbed most of his lines. Even worse, while filming a graveyard scene, the generator conked out. No word on how long it took to get it up and running again.

Starring as Deathstalker did not lift anyone to movie stardom, like "Conan the Barbarian" did for Arnie Schwarzenegger. Instead, the most famous people to appeared in the "Deathstalker" movies were Barbi Benton and Carla Sands, who played Princess Codile and Princess Carissa, respectively. Besides being one of Hugh Hefner's cuddlemates, Barbi appeared regularly on such TV shows as "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island". Perhaps Barb's most memorable "Fantasy Island" appearance was the one where she played an Irish bar owner; her attempt at an "Irish accent" is one for the ages. Carla Sands, however, would leave show business behind and go on to become the American ambassador to Denmark during the Trump administration. Rick Hill, who played the Deathstalker twice, wrote the New York Times bestseller Pete Rose: My Prison without Bars.

"I'll just have a salad.": Deathstalker#3 looses his appetite when he sees what's for dinner.

A few examples of the sparkling dialog found in the various "Deathstalkers":

* "Heroes and fools are the same thing".--Deathstalker in "Deathstalker" part 1.

*"Potatoes are all we eat!"--Khorsa, Marinda's mom in "Deathstalker" part 3.

* "Why do I keep getting involved with princesses?"--Deathstalker in "Deathstalker" part 3.

*"Ordinarily I don't mind seeing a woman get a good beating--if she deserves it--but this doesn't look like much of a contest to me."--Deathstalker in "Deathstalker" part 2.

* Princess Evie: "Oh, so you rob from the rich and give to the poor?"
  Deathstalker: "No, I rob from the rich and pretty much keep it all for myself."--Deathstalker from "Deathstalker" part 2.

* Deathstalker: " You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch the prince of thieves."

* Princess Evie: " It is early in the morning!"--from "Deathstalker" part 2.

* Deathstalker: "Look, Kana, I could be so much more fun to you alive than dead, if you'd just untie these straps."--Deathstalker in "Deathstalker" part 4.

* Vaniat: "Finest wine I've ever tasted. You must show me your cellar."

* Kana: "I'll show you more than that."--from "Deathstalker" part 4.

Deathstalker and a furry friend.

And the answer is...

There you go, movie lovers. Perusing this information should help you decide which "Deathstalker" entry is right for you. With so much bad acting, bad hair, bad F/X, bad direction, bad costumes and bad writing, the "Deathstalker" series is a four-part, all-cheese buffet that only Roger Corman could whip up. Just watch out for the nudity. And the violence against women. And the gore. I would personally recommend watching "Deathstalker"#3 first, because the crew from MST3K via Riff Tracks gives the flick a priceless once-over--but that's just me.

So, until next time movie lovers, please always remember and never forget, a bulging loin cloth does not a hero make. And SAVE THE MOVIES.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Sit a Spell for a Heapin' Helpin' of Southern Fried Cinema

Meet the "Steel Magnolias"--they're just like you, only prettier.

 How-dee, movie lovers.

 Released in 1989, "Steel Magnolias" had four Oscar winners in its cast, a script based on a hit play and a solid Hollywood hand (Herbert Ross) in the director's chair. It was also a box office hit.

So what's a movie like that doing on a blog like this?

Simple: underneath "Steel Magnolias" A-List pedigree is a predictable, manipulative, laugh-through-your-tears rom/com no different (and no better) than the down market twaddle peddled on the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime. It's just more expensive twaddle.

 "Steel Magnolias" may have based on true events, but no trope about southern life is neglected: mangy dogs, dim husbands, petty feuds, big hair, puffed sleeves, beauty queens, Bible thumpers and references to the Piggily-Wiggily. There's also Movie-of-the-Week staples like the over-protective mama, the grouchy eccentric and the local flirt who twitters, "That Jackson is one big hangin' man!" Instead of something more original, "Steel Magnolias" is merely a mash-up of "The Andy Griffith Show", "Peyton Place" and "The Bold and the Beautiful".

 M'Lynn (Sally Field) is worn slap out over the craziness surrounding her daughter's wedding.

In other words, it's a bad movie pretending to be a good movie. And that's why "Steel Magnolias" is on this blog.

Still not convinced? Read on.

 Chinquapin Parish is the sort of idyllic small town that only exists in Hollywood movies about idyllic small towns: nobody locks their doors, pies still cool on kitchen window sills and everybody knows your name. During a picture-perfect spring day, M'Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field, Oscar winner #1) is putting the finishing touches on daughter Shelby's (Julia Roberts, Oscar winner #2) wedding, which has her finding new champagne glasses for the reception, helping Shelby locate the right nail polish and foiling her teenage sons' plans to decorate their sister's honeymoon get-away car with rubbers--all at the same time. Whew! Did I forget to mention M'Lynn has also deputized husband Drum (Tom Skerrit) to shoo away a flock of neighborhood birds? No wonder she's happy to escape to Truvy's Beauty Spot (run by Dolly Parton), where the local ladies not only get their hair done, but gossip, swap one-liners and find relief from their daily trials.

Other Beauty Spot regulars include aristocratic widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis, Oscar winner #3); town Grinch Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine, Oscar winner #4), who has a running feud with M'Lynn's husband; and Annelle (Darryl Hannah), Truvy's new shop assistant who is loath to discuss anything about herself or her missing husband, Bunky.

Although everything feels homey and congenial when these ladies gather together, there are disquieting currents churning below the Southern Belle surface--because there has to be, right? I mean, this is a romantic/comedy/drama/slice-of-life/chick flick, so there have to be complications. You'll never stumble upon a romantic/comedy/drama/slice-of'-life/chick flick without them. Complications are what it's all about! So bring on the complications!

"Well, I declare...": Two locals from Chinquapin Parish trade information under the hairdryer.

Complication #1: Bride-to-be Shelby has a rare form of Type 1 diabetes and her doctor has told her getting pregnant is too dangerous. She's crushed and worries fiancee' Jackson (the hunky Dylan McDermott) is throwing away his chance to have a family. Shelby has other concerns about her forthcoming marriage, but she never lets the audience in on them. Thus, when Jackson tells Shelby, "I'm going to make you very happy", and she whispers to herself, "We'll see", you're left to wonder what gives.

Complication #2: Mom M'Lynn has watched over Shelby like a hawk since day one and she's finding it hard to loosen her grip. She's also convinced Jackson doesn't take Shelby's condition seriously enough and won't take proper care of her.

Complication #3: "Glamour Technician" Truvy's husband Spud (Sam Shepard) is rarely employed and  obviously depressed. Son Louis is a motorcycle riding punk with a taste for cheap girls. With her marriage under strain and her son all but begging for an STD, Truvy recalls that "the last romantic thing" Spud did for her was attach "this car port (where her beauty parlor is located) so I could support him."

Complication #4: Clairee is mourning the recent loss of her husband Lloyd and doesn't know what to do with herself. She also has trouble finding (and maintaining) a creditable southern accent.

Complication #5: Town grouch Ouiser  complains endlessly about everything, from her two "total deadbeat" ex-husbands to her ungrateful children to M'Lynn's husband ("He is a boil on the butt of humanity!"). If  people are nice to her, Ousier declares, it's only because "I have more money than God"--and she's right. Of course, viewers know underneath her snarling exterior Ouiser has a heart of gold, because all grouches do.

"She could start an argument in an empty house.": Town grouch Ousier (Shirley MacLaine) gives Drum (Tom Skerritt) a piece of her mind.

Complication #6: Shy and awkward Annelle (Darryl Hannah) finally breaks down and admits her life is "horrible". Husband Bunky has skipped town and the police are after him--he's mixed up with "drugs or somethin'". Worse, their marriage may not be legal. Annelle didn't want anyone to know because she feared it would cost her her job. However, in the best tradition of Scarlett O'Hara, Annelle refuses to be defeated, vowing, "I swear, my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair."

Got all that? Good. Moving right along, Shelby and Jackson's eventual wedding is the social event of the season in Chinquapin Parish and goes off without a hitch. The movie then flashes forward to Christmas time, where Shelby announces she's pregnant against her doctor's orders. Naturally, M'Lynn is aghast. 

"Your poor body has been through so much," Mom hollers. "Why would you deliberately do this to yourself?!"

"Diabetics have healthy babies all the time," Shelby informs her.

"You're special!," M'Lynn says. "There are limits to what you can do!"

M'Lynn (Sally Field) and Shelby (Julia Roberts) are at odds...again.

Shelby doesn't agree. In fact, she thinks the real problem lies elsewhere, namely with  M'Lynn's helicopter parenting.

"You're jealous!" Shelby informs her mom. "Because you no longer have a say-so in what I do. You're ready to spit nails because you can't call the shots!"

Then Shelby confesses her marriage to rich, hunky Jackson isn't going well. Why? Is he screwing around? Addicted to the Home Shopping Channel? Did she catch him trying on her underwear? Or her shoes? Or--heaven forbid-- is Jackson one of those nuts devoted to "America's Ninja Warrior"? We're never told.

However, after a long, painful pause, M'Lynn says, "I see."

I'm glad someone does.

"She's as pretty as a peach!": A radiant Drum walks Shelby (Julia Roberts) down the isle.

Her fears about Jackson being a total dick-weed confirmed, M'Lynn is convinced this pregnancy will have fatal consequences for Shelby. Her beauty parlor buddies encourage her to stay positive; they vow to support her because dim hubby Drum is too excited about bein' a grandaddy to realize the seriousness of the situation.   

 Shelby eventually produces the world's cutest baby, Jack, Jr. Unfortunately, the pregnancy maxed out her kidneys--just as the doctors said it would--and she's in need of a transplant. Luckily, M'Lynn is a perfect match. The night before the procedure, Truvy discusses the surgery with husband Spud, who is working on a car. In typical good-ole-boy fashion, Spud shrugs off any concerns, saying, 'Well, they do it all the time on 'Circus of the Stars'."

The transplant does appear to first. Then Jackson arrives home to find Shelby unconscious and Jack, Jr. hysterically crying. Shelby's body has rejected the transplant and she's in a coma. Weeks pass with no change, but Mama Bear M'Lynn refuses to leave her daughter's side--or give up on the hope Shelby will recover. So she reads to her, shows her pictures of her son and even exercises Shelby's limp limbs. Nothing works. Finally, a tearful Jackson agrees to turn off his wife's life support and she quickly and quietly passes away.

No "Disease Drama" is complete without a big, emotional outburst, where a cast member screams at the heavens asking why their beloved husband/wife/child/best friend/parent/pet had to die. And "Steel Magnolias" is no exception. Sally Field, looking dejectedly at her daughter's casket, cannot be comforted by her friends. Instead, she pitches herself a hissy fit with a tail on it.

 "I can jog to Texas and back, but my daughter can't! She never could! Oh, God!" M'Lynn wails. "I am so mad I don't know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know why Shelby's life is over! I wanna know how that baby will ever know how wonderful his mother was!"

Whew! But hold on, Field is just getting warmed up.

"Hit her with your best shot!": Clairee tells the grieving M'Lynn to punch Ousier for instant relief.

"Will (Jack, Jr.) ever know what she went through for him?!" Field asks. "Oh God! I wanna know why! Why! I wish I could understand!" Pause. "No, no no!" Sally screams in what I bet was probably her Oscar consideration clip. "It's not suppose to happen this way! I'm suppose to go first! I've always been ready to go first!" Another pause. M'Lynn shouts, "I don't think I can take this! I just want to hit somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!" (Applause all around.)

Then Clairee grabs a startled Ousier and yells, "Hit this! Go ahead, M'Lynn! Slap her!"

"Are you high Clairee?!" Ousier demands before stalking off--and flipping everyone the bird.

No, M'Lynn doesn't hit anybody...she's too much of a lady to do that. Instead, she finally gets a grip on herself and joins everybody at the funeral reception. While pushing Jack, Jr. in a swing, Annelle asks Field if she can name the baby she and husband Sammy are expecting in honor of Shelby. M'Lynn is touched and admits, "Life goes on."

Yes, life does go on, but, thankfully, "Steel Magnolias" doesn't. With time running out, director Ross scurries around tying up loose ends, so 1) Spud finally lands a steady job and he and Truvy are reunited, 2) Clairee has bought a radio station and 3) grouchy Ousier has met up with an old beau (arranged by the late Shelby) and almost seems happy. Then at the annual Easter Egg Hunt, Annelle goes into labor and everybody starts running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  As Spud drives Annelle to the hospital, Sammy follows along on the back of Louis' bike. Should I mention that Louis' hair is dyed multiple colors in honor of the holiday? Or that Sammy is in an Easter Bunny costume, having been deputized to play the festive critter for the local kiddies? 

Annelle finds yet another way to humiliate husband Sammy.

Well, isn't that precious.

Now, before you accuse me of being a heartless cynic wise-acre who wouldn't know genuine love if it bit me on the boob, hold your horses. I have nothing against having a good cry at the movies. There are many wonderful films about love and loss that are deeply moving: "Brian's Song" starring the late James Caan and Billy Dee Williams (just hearing the theme song can make me tear up); "Shadowlands", starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, which is also based on a true story and "Saving Private Ryan". Other examples include "Terms of Endearment", "The Cay" and the films "Old Yeller", "Sounder", "Stone Fox", "Shiloh" and "Where the Red Fern Grows".

What I don't like is manipulative weepers that mechanically pull out the stops instead of just letting events genuinely move you.

And from its opening credits to the final notes of its score, "Steel Magnolias" unspools like a check-list of cliches.

 A beautiful young person struck down in the prime of his/her life? Check.  A young child or infant left without his/her mom or dad? Yep. A selfless and/or determined parent/guardian/friend/pet who sacrifices their life for someone else? Covered. A deadly disease that cannot be cured? Which would you prefer, cancer or kidney failure? Hard won wisdom after experiencing a tragedy and/or loss? Got that in spades. People bravely determined to honor the memory of a loved one by facing the future with love and hope? You betcha. The enduring power of friendship? Lots of that. The importance of faith? Is the Pope Catholic?

"I want to look especially good for the nominating committee.": M'Lynn (Sally Field)  pretties herself up after her big emotional outburst/Oscar nomination scene.

 Director Ross and his "Steel Magnolias" hit all their marks... like scam artists sizing up their latest targets. And because everything served looked pretty, all they had to do was wait for the cash to roll in and the award nominations to be announced.

Which made me madder than a mule chewing bumblebees.

Then I got busy (well, not too busy) and wrote this post.

As the cast of "Steel Magnolias" might say, "Well, bless her heart!"

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, some flicks are all hat and no cattle, so be on look out. And SAVE THE MOVIES, too.

"This movie is so sad...not really."

Sorry about the big white space gap between this post and the one beneath it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Is "Fight Club" a Cult Classic?

"Fight Stud": Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in "Fight Club".

Hi Keebah, movie lovers.

Are you a person of the male gender?

Do you feel trapped in your job? Disrespected by your kids? Sexually frustrated with your wife/girlfriend/live-in/partner/cuddlemate?

Are you fed-up with being blamed for everything from war to global warming to feckless capitalism to Ryan Seacrest and modern art?

Has life become so stressful and overwhelming that you feel like you're about to explode...or punch the first parking meter you see?

"Fight Tub": Tyler cools off after a bout.

If so, join the club.

Or, rather, join "Fight Club".

Released in 1999, "Fight Club"(based on Chuck Palahniuk's cult/pulp novel of the same name) was initally met with mixed reviews and dismal box office. Twenty three years later, however, this Brad Pitt/Edward Norton cage match has since been deemed a "cult classic" and reviewers have reappraised its cinematic merits.

My question? Does "Fight Club" deserve to be called a cult classic?

Let's ponder the issue, shall we kiddies?

"Fight Shlub": Edward Norton as the put-upon Narrator/Jack.

Our feature presentation begins by introducing us to an unnamed Narrator (who is called Jack from time to time), played by Edward Norton. A well-paid corporate drone, Narrator and/or Jack is single, depressed, unhappy at work, has a dink for a boss and suffers from crippling insomnia. Unable to get any medical help for his condition (or any sympathy, for that matter), Narrator/Jack attends various 12-step support groups as a "tourist" (a fake patient) so he can find a little compassion and feel free to cry.

While attending these groups, Narrator/Jack meets up with Marla (Helena Bonham-Carter), a poor, Goth girl who feels "dead inside" and attends support groups for the same reason he does. She calls out Norton for being just as big a fake as she is, so the two decide to "split" the groups they visit to avoid being discovered.

On a business trip, Narrator/Jack meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a trash-talking, chain-smoking, beer-swilling, in-your-face nonconformist who dresses like a pimp. Tyler slices porn scenes into family movies at the theater where he works and urinates in the soup at the fancy restaurant where he waits tables. His home is a rotting, stinking, crumbling house. He's Narrator/Jack's total opposite! Yet they bond over beers and when Narrator/Jack's meticulously IKEA decorated condo explodes, Tyler lets him bunk with him. He does ask one favor, though: "Hit me in the face as hard as you can."

Narrator/Jack reluctantly complies. One blow leads to another and, seconds later, Tyler and Narrator/Jack are punching each others' lights out. Crazy as it seems, Narrator/Jack finds these fist fights liberating--and he's not the only one: the city is apparently crawling with men who find bare knuckle brawling a welcome release from the grind of their daily lives. Soon enough, Tyler has organized an underground "fight club" that's the hottest draw in town.

"The first rule of Fight Club", Tyler announces, "Is you DO NOT talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! The third rule of Fight Club: someone yells 'stop', goes limp, taps out, the fight is over."

"Fight Grub": Narrator/Jack eats something other than fist.

But that's just the beginning. After (literally) tasting blood, Tyler morphs Fight Club into Project Mayhem: a secret, paramilitary group that bombs consumer giants, public art displays...and chi chi coffee spots. When Project Mayhem member Bob (the late Meat Loaf) is killed during one of these raids, Narrator/Jack is horrified; he'd met Bob at a support group for testicular cancer survivors and the two had become friends. The other Mayhemers, however, just shrug their shoulders and continue making bombs. This causes Narrator/Jack to freak out and have a much needed moment of clarity. Or, to put it another way, Narrator/Jack suddenly realizes that Tyler and his band of merry Fascist pranksters are dangerously off their collective dots and must be stopped.

Unfortunately, Narrator/Jack has also come to learn that their secret Fight Club is not so secret; Tyler has been setting up fight clubs all around the country, indoctrinating its members with his wacky screeds on capitalism, technology and manliness.

Oh, and one more thing: while retracing Tyler's steps and following his paper trail (via airline receipts), Narrator/Jack is STUNNED! SHOCKED! and HORRIFIED! to learn that HE is Tyler Durden! At some point, Narrator/Jack must have suffered a psychotic break (or an extreme trauma) that caused him to splinter into two, distinct personalities--like Tommy Lee Jones in "The Eyes of Laura Mars" (read my review of "The Eyes of Laura Mars" if this is confusing to you) and various soap opera characters.

Unfortunately, Narrator/Jack's attempts to stop Project Mayhem from destroying various credit card companies doesn't quite pan out. However, he does succeed in ridding himself of Tyler by shooting himself in the face (!?) which causes his Tyler personality to die or evaporate, I'm not quite sure which.

"Fight Club" ends with Narrator/Jack and Marla holding hands, watching helplessly as buildings  explode and collapse around them. Will Narrator/Jack turn himself in? Stop future violence? Get the professional help he needs? Or has Tyler and Project Mayhem become so entrenched in the fabric of our nation they can't be stopped? The film doesn't tell us, but my impression is the worst is yet to come.

"Did I do that?": Narrator/Jack surprises himself (and others) after he pulverizes a fellow club member into pulp.

Now we turn to the burning question if "Fight Club" qualifies as a genuine "cult classic".

According to the The Movie Web website, a "cult classic" is a "movie that has generated a significant and highly dedicated fan base over time." 

Or, to put it another way, think of the cinematic universe as your typical run-of-the-mill high school. Traditional classics like "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Singin' in the Rain" are the "cool kids." Cult classics, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or "Eraserhead", meanwhile, are the "cool misfits"--and proud of it (read Sophie Collins' full article for more detail).

Does "Fight Club" make the grade?

I say no.

"Fight Bub": Jared Leto as "Angel Face" one of "Project Mayhem"s new recruits.


Because "Fight Club" is too much of a mainstream Hollywood production-- despite its trappings of male alienation, mental illness, underground clubs and Fascism run amuck-- to be a cult classic.

One of the things a cult classic must do is surprise its audience with their willingness to ignore or flaunt the rules of traditional movie making: the ominous ending in "Night of the Living Dead", for example, or the revelations about Leatherface and his family in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". Think, also, of the in-your-face flamboyance of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or "Barbarella". Then there is the cheerful bad taste and taboo breaking in John Waters' oeuvre.

 "Fight Club" has none of that.

The flick was directed by David Fincher, who gave us "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", "The Social Network" and "Panic Room", among other titles. Dave is clearly at home with presenting dark, violent stuff  brewing just below the surface of society. Thus, he's not saying or showing us anything new in "Fight Club" that we haven't seen in his other films--unlike like David Lynch, who seems to have bottomless pit of crazy to draw from.

Malcolm McDowell as Alex in "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). With all due respect to Tyler Durden, this is what a scary, anti-social character who "enjoys ultra violence" looks like.

The acting in "Fight Club" is universally good. Pitt and Norton are two of our finest actors. However, their characters and their predicament has been done before: "American Beauty" (1999), "Falling Down" (1993) "Angel Heart" (1987) and the TV series "Breaking Bad" all feature guys being crushed by a world that has A) suddenly chosen to dispose of them or B) after acquiring all the symbols of outward success, these guys feel unfulfilled and hollow. 

Even the plot point of a "square" (like Narrator/Jack) embracing the wild side is another familiar theme; think of Jack Nicholson's star turn in "Easy Rider", where his uptight lawyer George bonds with hippies Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, hits the road and begins smoking reefer--all to break free from his middle class shackles. Somehow, Narrator/Jack falling in with Tyler just doesn't have the feeling of danger or liberation the story needs to involve us in his plight.

Next, there is the surprise "twist" of Narrator/Jack and Tyler being the same guy. Sorry, but that wasn't much a shocker to me--or to anyone else who watched the flick. The film leaves clues about it everywhere: Narrator/Jack and Tyler are never shown together (unless they are alone); Marla (who is sleeping with "both" men) constantly asks Narrator/Jack, "Who are you talking to?" when the guys are supposedly conversing; she's also regularly befuddled as to why Narrator/Jack swings between "nice" and "mean" in the blink of an eye. That's because Tyler is Narrator/Jack's ID! Tyler does everything Narrator/Jack wants to do, but can't! If you need even more proof that this "twist" is far from a novel one, just watch "Frankie and Alice" (2010), "Walking Madison" (2010), "Primal Fear" (1996) or "The Other" (1972). They use it, too!

So movie lovers, I hate to disappoint you. The movie "Fight Club" is many things--violent, creepy, even funny in parts--but it's not a cult classic.

Although many are called, few flicks truly reach the heights of cult classic status. This is a very exclusive club and not just anybody can be admitted.

Lawyer George (Jack Nicholson) rides off into the sunset with Captain America (Peter Fonda) in 1969's "Easy Rider"-- a real cult classic, by the way.

Sorry Brad and Ed. Better luck next time.

So movie lovers, I leave you with a quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (reworked a bit) to conclude this piece: "In the case of cult classics, I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

Save the movies, too.