Archive for May 1981

Polyester

May 29, 1981

John Waters began his uneasy romance with the mainstream (where he finally realized he could do more damage than he could with midnight movies) with this dead-bang satire of suburbia and bad melodramas. Divine is great as Francine Fishpaw, a despondent housewife whose life is a nonstop series of catastrophes until she meets the man of her dreams — Tod Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), a drive-in owner. Not nearly as gross as Waters’ previous outings (when Francine has to puke, she does it discreetly into her purse), but still wild enough to please any Waters fan. Highlights: the sad story of Francine’s son, “the Baltimore Foot-Stomper”; the hilarious scene in the abortion clinic — fifteen years before Citizen Ruth, Waters found humor in this hot topic. Best of all, lucky audience members got “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff cards so they could experience various scents (farts, dirty shoes) along with Francine! Better revival theaters still carry the cards, and they were packaged along with the laserdisc and DVD editions. Score by Michael Kamen (Brazil); Debbie Harry co-wrote some songs. With Stiv Bators, Cookie Mueller, and the invaluable Edith Massey and Mink Stole.

Urgh! A Music War

May 23, 1981

I loved every second of Urgh! A Music War, even when I was baffled. Perhaps especially when I was baffled. How else does one respond to such only-in-the-early-’80s acts as Invisible Sex, who appear onstage in makeshift hazmat suits, or the late Klaus Nomi in his futuro-bizarro getup and his soaring falsetto, or the Surf Punks with their punk-nerd outfits and the simulated sex in an onstage beach shack? Dear God, what a strange and wondrous time for alternative music. This was an era in which the Go-Gos could be sandwiched between the hardcore punk acts Athletico Spizz 80 and Dead Kennedys and somehow not seem out of place. (Belinda Carlisle, in the Urgh! footage, may be bouncy and happy, but she’s got the prerequisite short punk ‘do.)

Urgh! was filmed in 1980 at a variety of locations (New York, London, France, Los Angeles) as a somewhat scattershot attempt to capture some of the emerging New Wave and punk acts of the day. It can be seen today as an accidental Woodstock, as musically important in its way as Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary was. It catches, for instance, one of XTC’s last live performances (a ripsnorting “Respectable Street,” easily one of the film’s highlights) before Andy Partridge got stage fright and announced that XTC would no longer do concerts. At the end, when the Police do “Roxanne” (a great performance — man, they kicked ass in concert back in the day) and then “So Lonely,” they invite various groups we’ve seen in the movie: UB40, Skafish, the ivory-tickling Jools Holland, and others; it’s a semi-historic jam.

When the camera moves in on one hot babe or another in the crowd (which is somewhat often), you can tell that at the time the camera crew was just filming whatever caught their eye (and pants), but seen today it’s a cultural document: It’s fun to see how young women were dressing to go see X or Pere Ubu. From this movie, you might also conclude that the Lollapalooza generation didn’t invent pogo-ing, moshing, and stage-diving; you see it all here (most amusingly, I thought, during sets by the Go-Gos and Oingo Boingo). Urgh! also captures a deadpan-antagonistic time in rock. Many of the punk and New Wave acts here don’t seem to give a fuck whether you like them or not, yet they come to play and they play hard. When Lux Interior of the Cramps sticks his mike in his mouth and staggers around grunting as it hangs out, it’s a primal moment to rival Pete Townshend’s guitar-smashing; it comes from the same basic impulse, anyway.

You notice, too, the high level of joy in these performances. Many of the arrogant young (mostly) men onstage may have been in it to entertain themselves, but they keep things moving. The gyrations here couldn’t be further from the frozen-faced growling of today’s “alternative” rock. Dead Kennedys’ frontman Jello Biafra, spitting out “Bleed for Me,” exhorts the crowd to enjoy the freedom to hear punk rock — while it lasts (the punk rock and the freedom). Biafra has a corrosive staccato gaiety that matches Johnny Rotten at his most splenetic. Kenneth Spiers, lead shouter of Athletico Spizz 80 (doing their novelty hit “Where’s Captain Kirk?”), jumps around spraying the audience, fellow band members, and himself with silly string, then tosses the empty can over his shoulder, not caring if it hits any of his bandmates. Jim Skafish bends himself into art-rock pretzels during “Sign of the Cross,” a nerd’s idea of punk (a lot of the music here is a nerd’s idea of punk, including Devo, represented here with the relentless “Uncontrollable Urge”). Steel Pulse illustrate their song “Ku Klux Klan” with a (black) band member capering onstage in a KKK outfit. Howard Devoto of Magazine — the former Buzzcocks member who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chuck & Buck‘s Mike White — strolls around the stage as if waiting for a bus, a sly inversion of punk flailing that has its own quiet punk wit. In comparison with the carefree showmanship seen in Urgh!, many of today’s acts seem stoic, almost monastic, and far more self-involved and nihilistic than the most insular New Wave warbler.

Half of these groups didn’t seem to go anywhere after 1981, but it’s a treat to go back in time and catch the ones that did make it. Two elder statesmen of film-soundtrack composition, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo, come off here like the sweaty madmen they were back then. Joan Jett (doing an electrifying “Bad Reputation”) looks appealingly almost-chubby, before the label presumably told her to slim down for MTV; the same is true of Belinda Carlisle. Exene Cervenka nonchalantly commands the stage on X’s “Beyond and Back,” as does Gary Numan (tooling around in a little car) on “Down in the Park.” The one-hit wonders and no-hit wonders are equally alluring. I was charmed by Toyah Willcox’s jubilant, oh-shit-I’m-supposed-to-be-cool, but-I’m-happy hopping about. It’s a shame the exuberant Chelsea weren’t better known. Wall of Voodoo, whose lead singer Stan Ridgway resembles a crank-addled Griffin Dunne, pumps up the defiant “Back in Flesh” (no, not “Mexican Radio” — that would be too obvious). The movie is heavily male, but the female singers — Willcox, Carlisle, Jett — distinguish themselves by their clarity. Joan Jett screams as fiercely as anyone, but you can understand everything she’s saying, whereas many of the male singers rant unintelligibly (which can be its own kind of hostile fuck-you lyricism). The viewer/listener comes away thinking that Jett and the other women — remember, this was 1980 and 1981, long before Courtney and Alanis — have fought too hard to be on that stage to waste the opportunity to be heard; the men, accustomed to being heard, let their words clatter and fall every which way.

Jonathan Demme is thanked in the credits, and much of Urgh! shares the concert-film aesthetic he pioneered in Stop Making Sense and continued in Storefront Hitchcock. Director Derek Burbidge, who made rock videos back then (including “Cars” for Gary Numan and pretty much all the Police’s early MTV highlights), is into simplicity, not flash (a useful approach when catching thirty-odd bands on the fly in three different countries). The bands are given space to work up their own rhythm — the editing doesn’t do it for them. Burbidge is as fond of the mammoth close-up as Sergio Leone ever was, and half of “Roxanne” seems to explore Sting’s nostrils from previously unseen angles. Performers like Lux Interior and Jello Biafra seem to be dripping sweat right onto you. The effect is to take you into the front row.

Urgh! doesn’t (and can’t possibly) have the cohesive brilliance or musical momentum of Stop Making Sense — the styles are simply too varied, throwing you from catatonic New Wave to thrashing punk in an eyeblink. Still, as a record of a moment and a sound, it ranks up there with the best you’ve seen and heard. 5

Outland

May 22, 1981

Sometime in the future, corporations have set up mining bases all over the galaxy. The one on Io (second moon of Jupiter) is the most productive, but is also starting to see an increase in violence among the workers. Sean Connery, a marshall assigned to Io for a year-long tour, decides to investigate the deaths. The movie’s look (grungy, lived-in metal) and tone (exhausted cynicism) are heavily indebted to Alien, and the storyline — in which Connery must face the villains without help from the apathetic workers — has been called a deliberate nod to High Noon. The real problem is that nothing much seems to happen outside of Connery’s detective scenes and the frequent gory deaths of drugged-out workers who expose themselves to the Io atmosphere (1/6th the gravity of Earth) without protection. We just sort of mark time until the arrival of two hit men sent by the corporation to knock Connery out of the way, and Connery isn’t very exciting in the lead; his secret weapon is humor, not bad-ass stoicism, which he’s called upon to lean on almost exclusively here. (The only time he shows some dry wit is when playing off Frances Sternhagen, as a cranky doctor who helps him, or Peter Boyle as the corrupt company manager.) Not as awful as some (like Harlan Ellison in his prolonged diatribe) have said, but not equal to its production and sound design. With James B. Sikking, Steven Berkoff, and some interesting proto-techno music (by Ganymede) in the nightclub scenes.

The Burning

May 8, 1981

Quite the grim and nasty movie, The Burning is. Oh, it has its share of goofing around — it’s set (like Friday the 13th) at a summer camp, so there are many scenes of camper hijinks that feel like padding — but it has a memorably ugly undercurrent. The premise is based loosely on an actual urban legend/campfire tale (of which there are many variants): Five years ago, a despised camp caretaker named Cropsy fell victim to a prank that went awry; horribly burned from head to toe, he gets out of the hospital, warms up by butchering a hooker, and heads to another summer camp in search of nubile, foolish teenagers to slice up with his absurdly large pair of shears. Much emphasis is placed at the beginning on how hideously disfigured Cropsy is, how the skin grafts didn’t take, how even a seasoned prostitute cowers at the mere sight of him. You can bet Sam Raimi took a long look at The Burning before getting started on his Darkman: Cropsy is like Peyton Westlake without the artificial-skin formula and with a heaping plate of bitter, homicidal rage.

The Burning is of interest for other reasons, notably its unusually strong pedigree of future successes (Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, co-scripter Bob Weinstein, producer Harvey Weinstein, editor Jack Sholder) and slumming successes (composer Rick Wakeman, who contributes an off-balance score). As a slasher movie, it belongs firmly in the company of such rip-offs as My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler; excoriated at the time, those early-’80s Dead Teenager Films (Roger Ebert’s term) have become sources of affectionate nostalgia for horror fans of a certain age. People get excited when these movies finally show up on DVD (and they get downright orgasmic if the DVD offers an uncut version). I’m no different. I first saw The Burning at age 12 or so, on cable, very early in the morning; I actually got up to watch the damn thing, rather than staying up late (which I also did regularly, in those dim days before VCRs).

The movie has stayed with me for some twenty years. I think it’s because The Burning feels, at times, as if it were made by Cropsy. It is powered by a strong sense of anger and disgust. We feel bad for Cropsy when he sets himself on fire and goes screaming into the night, just as we felt bad for the dork-turned-murderer in Terror Train who was led into a room containing, instead of the sexy girl he was expecting, a sexy cadaver, which drove him insane. The idea of a “harmless prank” that ends up fucking someone’s life forever disturbs us. It goes back to Carrie and the bucket of pig blood that led to a massacre. Carrie destroyed the innocent as well as the guilty, and therein lay the horror, but we couldn’t help rooting for her to release that rage. And so, in movies like Terror Train and The Burning, a dark part of us wants the blood to spill, wants the characters to die. Hell, the movie is even named after the motivating trauma — it’s not called Camp of Blood, or whatever. The title itself reminds us continually why people are being killed.

There’s precious little plot, and only a mild twist. One of the counselors, it so happens, was in on the prank, back when he was a camper; but since we don’t find that out till near the end, we don’t feel the character’s guilt the way we felt Hart Bochner’s “Oh shit, I’m going to die and I probably deserve it” dread in Terror Train. As a slight change of scenery, some of the counselors and campers take off via canoe to the other side of the lake; this accomplishes little except isolating a smaller group. (Oddly, the campers are never threatened, even though it was a group of campers who burned Cropsy; he goes after the counselors exclusively, as if he somehow knew that among them is one of his destroyers.)

When the canoes mysteriously disappear, the kids and counselors build a raft, and some of them float off in search of the canoes; this leads to the movie’s centerpiece, staged by director Tony Maylam and special-effects guru Tom Savini as a lightning-fast mass murder on the water. Can a man really dispatch so many people in so little time? I don’t know, but the moment brings you up short; horror movies condition you to believe that going off alone is certain doom, whereas there’s always safety in numbers. Here, there’s not only no safety in numbers — it happens in broad daylight, man, in the middle of a fuckin’ lake! This camp must be a damned and forgotten clime, where killers can butcher so easily and with such impunity under the cover of nothing.

There’s really no rhyme or reason to who lives or dies; some of the counselors who stay at the camp will live, some who left on the canoe trip will die. Two of the comely young counselors who disrobe for the camera are earmarked for destruction, as if Cropsy were punishing them for their very sexuality — and here, more than in most other slasher films, the have-sex-and-die motif has a nasty realism. Cropsy was burned all over, and we must assume that includes his genitalia; how filled with rage he must be at the sight of girls who once might’ve been masturbation fodder for him, but whose very presence now mocks the insensate meat of what’s left between his legs — not that any woman would come near him even if he were sexually intact, as we saw in his encounter with the prostitute.

This is a slasher movie with a difference, though it plays by almost all the rules and is generally too predictable to be “scary” (with the major exception of the raft massacre, where all you’re expecting is for them to find a body part in the canoe, you pretty much see all the killings coming a mile away). It tries to drum up audience rapport with the doomed counselors (though Jason Alexander shows his comedic gifts even here), but our sympathies are unavoidably with Cropsy, based on the filmmakers’ empathy with the horrors he went through (five years of unsuccessful skin grafts, man — can you even imagine the torture?). His revenge, even on those who had nothing to do with his disfigurement, feels inevitable, preordained. All of this is an attempt to dig out why The Burning has stayed with me since 1982 or so. It’s a legitimately ugly movie; it gets under your skin.


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