March 30, 2012

DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978): Never Sit Beneath The Balcony


Starring Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott Reiniger. Directed by George A. Romero. (1978, 127 min).

1979 was a watershed year in my life, when I watched a movie that made a kid puke. The offending flick was George A. Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead. It’s hapless victim was one Mark J. Fortner.

When I first saw a commercial advertising Dawn of the Dead, man, did I want to see it! As a 14-year-old horror fan, nothing gets you more pumped-up than a movie ad that ominously announces the film is so violent that it has no MPAA rating. On the other hand, nothing shoots the wind out of your sails faster than the addendum in the same ad which states ‘no one under 17 will be admitted.’ Period.

Goddammit!


Worse yet, since most theater chains wouldn’t book any unrated movie (which is still true today), Dawn of the Dead would likely not be shambling into any mallplex in the ‘burbs (kind of ironic when you consider the plot).

Sure enough, it only played in one
downtown college theater for a few weeks. So much for sneaking into it at the Southgate Theater near my house.  Alas, I had to settle for reading about Dawn's gory glory in the pages of Fangoria.

Then, almost a year later, a miracle happened. Dawn of the Dead popped up as the bottom half of a double bill (with Phantasm) at the trusty old Cinema V, an ugly, ancient, puke-colored, second-run theater in downtown Milwaukie, the suburb where I lived and only a twenty-minute bike ride away. I’d gone there many times, mostly when my allowance money was running low but I still needed my movie fix. The admission price was always only 69 cents for as long as I could remember, and that was for two movies! 69 CENTS was perpetually plastered on its cracked and weathered marquee at least five times bigger than the movie titles themselves. In fact, most of us had been calling the place Cinema 69 for years (snickering like Beavis & Butthead once we eventually learned the connotation of that number).

Even though the place was old, dank and had a big slit in the screen no one bothered to repair, it was pretty awesome to be able to catch a movie just by rummaging through sofa cushions for loose change. Even better was the fact that Cinema V never checked IDs. I couldn’t believe it: the mother of all zombie flicks, 69 cents, no ID check. The stars must have aligned that weekend in 1979.

God bless the second-run theater, an endangered species nowadays. There’s hardly any of them around anymore. As it becomes cheaper and more convenient to watch movies at home, one by one, these theaters are dropping like headless zombies. Sure, some still exist in major cities, but usually only after rechristening themselves theater-pubs, where hipsters congregate to pretend they enjoy microbrews that taste like socks, or cinema-arcades to train young kids the fine art of gambling. Even the old Cinema V is now one of these, it's once-spacious auditorium chopped in half to make room for Skee-Ball and Whack-A-Mole. Movies alone are seldom enough to keep these places in business, even with an admission price less than a glorified milkshake from Starbucks. There are still a few second-run cinemas left which offer just movies, but I think it is just a matter of time before they are all gone. That’ll be a sad day.

Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I truly believe all movies are best on the big screen. But I am also a practical man, increasingly unwilling to roll the dice and shell out 60 bucks (admission for my family, popcorn and a few sodas) unless I am almost guaranteed to enjoy the film I’m mortgaging my house for. Second-run theaters always gave me the same opportunity at a fraction of the price. But that's now. Back in '79, all I cared about was hopping on my bike and pedaling into Milwaukie one summer afternoon with my best buddy Clay and our sort-of friend Mark Fortner.

I say 'sort-of' because Mark was more of a friend out of proximity. His family moved into our neighborhood the previous year. He was a nice enough guy, but a clean-cut, goody-two-shoes who went to a private school. He had a stupid sense of humor and often said the dorkiest things at the most inappropriate moments. The guy wore thick glasses, always tucked in his shirt and acted like he committed the perfect crime whenever an expletive escaped his lips. In other words, not cool, as defined by me and Clay. His dad, a pediatrician, was also a piece of work. He looked and talked like Ward Cleaver and had the creepiest laugh I'd ever heard in my life. If I was ever going to make a movie about a seemingly normal family man who turned out to be a serial killer, I'd cast Mark's dad. 


One time while we were all playing in Mark's driveway, Dr. Fortner popped his head out the door and, with a congenial grin and stupid laugh, said, "Hey gang, be careful not to hit the garage door with that basketball."
Me and Clay stared at each other, barely suppressing laughter.

Gang? Gang? What were we, the Little Rascals? Me and Clay were merciless in mocking Dr. Fortner, yet Mark took it like a good sport because it was obvious he wanted to fit in with his new friends, but had little idea how. He'd buy Led Zeppelin records just because we did, even though his personal preference in music was geared more toward the Bee Gees. When he tore the brown paper wrapping off of his new copy of Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, we chided him endlessly because the brown paper bag wasn’t wrapping; it was the album cover.

The neighborhood we lived in was still in development, so there were always several houses at various stages of construction. We played in those structures a lot, often engaging in our favorite activity, dirt clod fights. The rules were simple...divide into teams and try to nail each other. We introduced Mark to this sport on his first weekend in the neighborhood. In an effort to make new friends, he was up for it, but once I had him cornered in a ditch surrounding a house-in-development, he let his true colors fly. He was a sitting duck and he knew it. I stood over him above the ditch, arm cocked and ready to pound him with my dirt-grenade. Clay was nearby, giggling uncontrollably as he urged me to make the kill-shot (and he was on Mark's team). At this point, Mark started to cry. That made Clay laugh even harder, which was all the encouragement I needed to open fire. I missed, by the way, which was probably a good thing. Although we loved dirt clod fights, none of us really wanted to hurt each other. Mark was already bawling when my projectile exploded next to his head. I’d hate to think what would have happened if I’d nailed him. Clay would later swear up and down Mark wet his pants while cowered in that ditch. Whether or not that was actually true didn't dissuade me from relaying that detail as the climax to the story when I told others.

Yeah, we were sometimes pretty terrible to Mark, but that’s not to say we didn’t like him. Despite his social awkwardness, Mark was a nice guy. And, God bless him, he put up with a lot of shit just so he could be included. We never objected to having the guy around, especially in the summer, since he was the only kid in the neighborhood with a pool.

So when me and Clay decided to pedal down to the Cinema V to check out Dawn of the Dead, Mark wanted to tag along, which was fine with us. Dr. Fortner, however, had some initial reservations when Mark asked for permission. Permission? Really? Couldn’t he just lie and go anyway?

Mark’s dad warily shook his head. “I don’t know. I heard Cinema V is a shady place.”

Shady place? It was an old theater, not a strip club. And who the hell described any place as shady anymore? We never let Mark live that one down either.

Still, Mark was able to convince his dad to let him go, conveniently leaving out the fact we were going to see an unrated zombie movie. I didn’t actually tell my parents about Dawn either. Mom already once forbade me from seeing the main feature, Phantasm, during its initial run because of the tag line, ‘If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.’ Maybe Mark himself didn’t know or care what we were seeing; he was just happy to be included.

So we got there, bought popcorn and settled into the front row of the balcony (remember those?). The place was pretty full, mostly with a bunch of other kids whose IDs were obviously not checked at the door.

Dawn of the Dead is director George A. Romero’s sequel to his 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. Although released a decade later, Dawn picks up shortly after the events of the first film, only now the living dead have overrun the world. Two SWAT guys, a chopper pilot and his girlfriend escape in a helicopter and eventually find refuge in a shopping mall. After ridding the place of zombies, they barricade themselves in and proceed to live out the fantasy most of us have entertained at some point...having a whole mall to yourself. This idyllic existence is later disrupted when a gang of bikers lay siege upon the mall, allowing the zombies back in. Our heroes, now down to two, manage to escape, but the film ends with their ultimate fates unknown.

That’s the quick & dirty summary. Much has been written over the years about the film’s satiric commentary on consumerism, that the zombies themselves are not the true monsters...we are, devolving into animals once society has broken down and can no longer keep us in check. All that and a thousand more metaphors are exploited in the movie’s 127 minutes (epic length for a horror movie, but Dawn never feels that long).

But none of a movie’s social commentary matters when you’re 15 and suddenly exposed to the most graphic violence you’ve ever seen. People are eaten alive, whole chunks of flesh bitten from bodies; skulls are severed by helicopter blades, screwdrivers are thrust into temples, heads literally explode from gunshots, zombie children are gunned down, etc. This wasn’t just violence...this was gore.

While we were taking all of this in, it became obvious Dawn of the Dead was not the kind of movie Mark was used to. Me either, actually, but at least I’d been working up to it, having survived Jaws, The Exorcist, The Omen and Alien. But the violence in Dawn was way beyond any of that. And here was Mark, whose maximum exposure to movie mayhem was probably seeing Krypton explode in the original Superman.


There are some things Tylenol just can't fix.
During much of Dawn, Mark was green in the gills, but managed to man-up and tough it out for awhile, at least until the climax, when the aforementioned biker gang starts getting ripped apart and dismembered by the zombie hordes. Torsos are torn open, intestines are spilled and devoured, arms are ripped from their sockets, all while the victims are still alive. I have to admit, even I was getting a little queasy. But Mark couldn’t handle it. At the height of the biker slaughter, he leaned forward, eyes squeezed shut. He lurched a few times, clutched his stomach, then loudly spewed a geyser of projectile vomit. Since we were seated in the front row of the balcony, his stomach chowder rained down in chunks and splattered people twenty feet below us. I heard screams. Mark, grabbing his midsection, stumbled toward the exit.

Clay was laughing his ass off.

While the movie kept playing, I leaned over to see puke-drenched patrons standing up in revulsion, hands outstretched in disbelief. Several of them bolted from the theater, others stared up accusingly at me and Clay. We did our best to look like we had no idea what was going on.

By this time, the stench of Mark’s puke wafted to my nose. That, along with the disembowelment going on onscreen, made my own gut to a few summersaults. Thank God I managed to swallow it back down, because I knew this was yet-another socially awkward event Mark would never live down. I sure as hell didn’t want to join him as an object of ridicule. The only other time in my life I ever came that close to puking because of a movie was when I saw Jackass.

As the end credits of Dawn of the Dead rolled, a few Cinema V cronies came into the theater to clean up the mess below. The manager stormed up to the balcony and demanded to know who was responsible. Me and Clay had since moved to another section of the balcony, acting like personas non-grata, so he paid us no attention.

After a brief delay, the main feature, Phantasm, finally began. Having cleaned himself up and looking a bit less green, Mark eventually came back up and sat with us, and we all watched the movie in relative silence. Phantasm wasn’t a bad movie, but not very scary, and aside from a great scene involving a flying silver ball drilling into someone’s skull, kind of anticlimactic after the carnage of Dawn of the Dead.

Today, Dawn is a classic and widely considered the greatest zombie film of all time. For years it was the most gloriously violent thing I’d ever seen. When it later came out on video I used to love watching it with newbies who had no idea what was coming. The film immediately spawned countless imitations, many spewing out of Italy. Some were okay, most were shit, but Dawn just got better with each viewing, mainly because it was never just a gore film (even though that’s what I first loved about it). It’s a smartly-written, vicious attack on materialism that’s as morbidly funny as it is scary.

As for Mark, he managed to survive, though we gave him a lot of grief for puking up his popcorn, and as usual, he took our chiding with a good-natured grin. For all of his social inadequacies, the guy was a damn good sport. Because of that, maybe he was a better friend than we ever gave him credit for.

Mark and I kind of drifted apart shortly after I discovered girls, cars, booze and weed, while he continued taking school seriously and was a valedictorian his senior year. Shortly after I (barely) graduated high school, I think it was his younger brother who told me Mark got a full scholarship to USC or something. I, on the other hand, dropped out of community college to marry my high school sweetheart (but that’s another sad tale). Obviously, his encounter with the living dead at the Cinema V didn’t do any permanent damage, but I’ll bet he’s still not a zombie fan.

March 28, 2012

AMERICAN POP: Eggs & Vodka Do Not Mix

Featuring the voices of Ron Thompson & Lisa Jane Persky. Directed by Ralph Bakshi. (1981, 96 min)

I have bad memories of this one. Really bad.

I spent my teenage years growing up in a neighborhood development called Alderhill (don’t ask me what the hell that means). My parents had a house built there, a really hoity-toity block where the builders constructed homes based on the buyer’s specifications. We moved into our house when I was 13; only about half of the neighborhood homes had been completed, and there were numerous others in various phases of construction. A kid I vaguely knew from school, Clay, was already living there with his parents, and because of our proximity to each other, he soon became my best friend.

Clay was (and still is) a great guy, with an off-kilter sense of humor and sharp wit which often came to the forefront when he’d drop obscure pop-culture references into conversations. He also did some crazy stuff (which I often encouraged), such as the day he decided he’d it would be cool to be a pyromaniac. So off he went one day to achieve this new goal, filling balloons with propane from his dad’s garage before lighting them up. The instant result was a brief-but-huge ball of flame. Then one day he had the brilliant idea of tying together a dozen propane-filled balloons and igniting them in his back yard. He ended up blowing his eyebrows off. Soon after that he smartly decided being a pyromaniac wasn’t such a great idea.

Clay wasn’t really crazy or anything. A lot of what he did was deliberate, for the purpose of amusing his friends (much like the guys on Jackass years later, only they actually got paid to do shit like that). He wasn’t stupid, either, though he had that reputation because he had to repeat the eighth grade. Quite the contrary; the guy was smart as hell and got consistently better grades than I did in high school. With hindsight, I think a lot of the crazy stuff he did came from a desire to fit-in with the crowd we considered cool at the time.

And Clay never had to beat his parents to the mailbox to intercept report cards, like I did. This was back when grades were sent home on carbon sheets, and I discovered it was possible to deftly incorporate the clever use of an eraser and blue pencil to change a D into a B. I even purchased the supplies required to alter my grades into something my parents would deem acceptable. The ruse worked a few times, but I got cocky once, erasing an F so hard that I tore through the paper. Considering I got grounded for bringing home C's, I thought my life was over. When I told Clay of my dilemma, he just laughed and taunted me with what seemed like dozens of phone calls where he cackled, “You screwed it! You screwed it!” This didn’t help; my world was coming to an end, and my best friend thought the whole thing was funny. Of course, all these years later, it is hilarious. What’s doubly hilarious is, after several weeks of no report card in the mail, my parents finally decided to search my room. They found the incriminating evidence under my mattress. They were so upset about my grades that they weren't at all fazed at the tattered Penthouse magazine I also had stashed there.

Me and Clay did a lot of pretty dumb stuff together, and some of it was probably bad enough to land us in juvie if we were caught.

Actually, we were caught one time. Me, Clay and another kid named Brian all told our parents we were spending the night at each other’s houses, just so we could drive around all night and raise some hell. The first activity of the evening had us going to the Foster Road Drive-In and getting loaded on vodka Brian stole from his parents. To save some cash, I stashed away in the trunk of the car before going in. By the way, if you’ve never ridden in the trunk of a car, trust me, it ain't worth the extra savings, especially bouncing around with a tire iron up your ass.

The theater was showing a double-bill, American Pop and Tommy, the latter being a musical relic from 1975 based on an album by The Who. Tommy played first. I remember wanting to see it when I was younger, mainly because I was an Elton John fan and loved his version of “Pinball Wizard.” It turned out I didn’t miss much. I didn't like The Who’s music to begin with, and even though the movie was loaded with stars, including Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, Elton John (who can’t act) and Tina Turner (who can), the only part I enjoyed was Ann-Margaret writhing around in baked beans. I was always somewhat infatuated with Ann-Margaret, and probably would have eaten baked beans more often if she was waiting for me underneath them. Another strike against the movie is that there is no dialogue. The story is all told in song, which I’m not necessarily against, but I personally blame Tommy for probably inspiring Alan Parker and Roger Waters to do the same thing years later with Pink Floyd The Wall (my vote for the most boring musical of all time, even with the aid of narcotics).

Still, Tommy was better than American Pop, an animated movie directed by Ralph Bakshi, who's been mistaken for a genius on more than one occasion. This was the guy who made the first X-rated cartoon (Fritz the Cat) and was the first to try adapting The Lord of the Rings as a movie. He also decided to use his dubious animation skills (much of which consisted of Rotoscoping, a crappy and cheap technique which involves tracing over live-action footage) to chronicle the history of popular music in American Pop. According to the genius of Bakshi, the evolution of modern rock culminates in a drug-dealing James Dean look-a-like lipsyncing a Bob Segar song (Bob Segar is the culmination of popular American music???). Even though well-snockered by this time, the three of us pretty-much agreed the movie was phenomenally slow, crudely animated and boring, even back in 1982. Today, it looks downright archiac.

Being a big music fan, I was willing to actually give the movie another chance when it played on cable years later. After all, lots of movies are better the second time. But I wasn’t able to sit through it again. Too many painful memories. Not of the movie itself (it’s been deservedly forgotten by most people), but how I associate seeing it with what transpired later that night.

Have you ever done something really stupid when you were younger, and when thinking about it years later, you shutter at how dangerous your actions really were, and how much worse things could have turned out if luck wasn’t on your side? I have a lot of memories like that, such as when me and Clay once snuck out in the middle of the night and got the bright idea to try and climb a 300-foot radio tower. Even though this genius idea was initially mine, I got increasingly cold feet as we approached the tower, and it was only with Clay’s encouragement that we kept going. He even volunteered to climb first, which turned out to be a good thing for me; Clay only got about ten feet up before he was electrocuted and thrown back to the ground. He was scared, dazed and sported a nasty burn on his arm, but other than that, he was okay. Thank God because, besides losing my best friend, I wouldn’t have been able to effectively explain his char-broiled demise to his grieving parents. I have to admit, though, his terrified ranting on the long walk home afterwards, when he briefly entertained the notion that he really did die and was now in Hell (yes, we were both drunk), is pretty chuckle-worthy.

But not even a year later, on that fateful night when we saw American Pop, I discovered that there was one thing scarier than a near-death experience…getting busted.

It was around three-in-the-morning, long after leaving the drive-in, and the three of us were discovering that staying out all night wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We were tired and bored, but couldn’t go home; the lies we told our parents excluded that option. We tried to get some shut-eye in the car, but have you ever really tried getting a good night’s sleep in in one?

That’s when I had the bright idea to egg a house. But not just any house; the house of a kid we all hated. The kid in-question, Dan Sweet, had never done anything to us personally, but he was ‘different’ from us, and somewhat lacking in social skills, so of course he was deserving of punishment.

No, I’m not proud of that. Dan, if you’re reading this, sorry man. I hope life has treated you better than we ever did.

So after stopping by a nearby 7-Eleven to grab some ammo (this was back in the day when apparently there was nothing suspicious about three red-eyed teenagers buying a carton of eggs in the middle of the night), we headed to the Sweet residence. I knew where he lived because I walked past his house every morning on the way to school.

Upon spotting the house, which was totally dark except for a porch light, we gathered our eggs and climbed out of the car. After we scanned the surrounding homes to make sure no one happened to be peering out their windows, we let the eggs fly, splattering the roof, the front door and one of the bedroom windows. Laughing hysterically, we jumped back into the car and high-tailed it out of there.

It was maybe twenty minutes later, Brian once again driving around with nowhere to go, that Clay spotted flashing red and blue in the distance behind us.

“Shit!” he cried. “Is that a cop?”

I turned around. The lights must have been a quarter-mile back, but they were coming fast. “He ain’t after us,” I said confidently, probably because I was still drunk.

“Oh, man,” Brian said, unsure of what to do. “Should we pull over?”

“No!” I snapped back. “He’s probably going on another call.”

“What if I was speeding?” Panic spread across Brian’s face. “Oh, shit, we got booze and eggs in the car!”

I whipped around to Clay, who was sitting in wide-eyed panic in the back seat. “Stash the bottle and the eggs!” Then I turned to Brian. “Turn off on the next street. Maybe they’ll just keep going.”

He never got that chance, because the cops were indeed after us. Still, I refused to believe it was because of the assault on Dan’s house. After all, we’d never been caught before. We were too smart, right?

Brian pulled over. The flashing police lights were blinding in the rearview mirrors. Two cops ordered us from the car. We complied, and it wasn’t until we were being frisked that reality instantly sobered me up.

The cops tossed the car, and almost immediately found the nearly-empty vodka bottle and egg carton.

“I swear to God, I had no idea those were in there!” I remember claiming, even though both Brian and Clay had already manned-up and admitted what we did. Not much of a friend, was I? Turning chickenshit to try and save my own ass.

One of the cops, sporting a bushy porn-star mustache and coffee breath, got in my face and sneered, “I don’t think I like this kid. He’s a fuckin’ liar.”

I nearly pissed myself.

“Tell you what…either we call your parents or haul your sorry ass to jail.” He leered at me with a shit-eating grin I’ll never forget.

Jail or parents. What, no third option, like death? I would have preferred that one over calling my parents.

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is seeing my parents driving up in their Volkswagen to pick me up by the roadside where cops stopped us. Dad always had a short fuse. No, he never beat me or anything, and was an awesome father, but he was also easily angered back then (which suddenly went away forever after he later retired from his career in public education…fancy that). But on this night, he had no expression at all as he climbed from the car to collect his delinquent son. His face was the scariest thing of all. No emotion, no rage, nothing. That’s when I knew I really screwed up. I triggered something in him beyond anger. I didn’t simply piss him off. I truly disappointed him, which was worse.

Mom was in tears, of course, as I knew she would be. She was also still living in total denial, because she couldn’t bring herself to believe her son could be involved in such an activity without being coerced by his friends. I must have given in to peer pressure. For a short time afterwards, she forbade to hang around Clay, even though egging the house was actually my idea. In fact, a lot of the deviant behavior we engaged in was my idea.

I got grounded for about 800 years, which I deserved. I also remember being pissed that Clay got off scot-free; his parents just chalked it up to boys being boys. Where could I buy parents like that? It could have been worse, though. I could have gone to jail, and thank God the Sweets chose not to press charges. Still, this incident is the only time in my life where I was nailed by police and treated like a criminal.

I don’t know whatever became of Brian - he was more Clay’s friend than mine - but Clay turned out okay, having developed some common sense long before I chose to. I still talk to him on the phone from time to time, and he’s married with a good job.

To this day, even if American Pop was the greatest animated achievement of all time (which it isn't), there’s no way I could watch it today without reliving that night in excruciating detail. Getting busted for egging a house may not rank me in the company of Dillinger, but when you are 17, it’s like your world is coming to an end.

THE PLAGUE DOGS: The Feel-Bad Movie Of All Time

Featuring the voices of John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin. Directed by Martin Rosen. (1982, 103 min)

Hands down, the most relentlessly depressing movie of all time is The Plague Dogs. Go ahead, offer Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, The Road, Seven or anything directed by Abel Ferrera as rebuttal. If you do, you have either not seen The Plague Dogs or you truly believe that animals are as godless as the Graboids in Tremors. If you are one of the latter, I do not want to know you, but I’m more inclined to believe you are one of the former. Who doesn't love animals? After all, look how often we watch films where countless people die, yet if even a single animal is in peril, we think, "No, not the dog!" Well, The Plague Dogs is a movie where nearly every cruel, violent or horrifying event is inflicted on man's best friend.

Aside from my wife, to whom I subjected this movie when I found it on the shelf of a now-extinct mom-and-pop video store, I’ve still never met anyone who had even heard of The Plague Dogs, even though it is based on a novel by Richard Adams, renowned for penning the bestselling classic, Watership Down. That book was later adapted for the screen by director Martin Rosen.

I tried reading Watership Down as a kid but couldn’t get through it, mainly because Adams expected the reader to keep referring to a glossary at the end of the book to understand the terms used by his rabbit characters (any book which requires you to educate yourself before enjoying the story isn’t worth reading). But the tale itself was intriguing enough to spawn a pretty great  animated movie in 1978. And this wasn’t your normal Disney cartoon fare. Watership Down is very British and very violent, the first cartoon I ever saw where blood is visually split and characters die onscreen, sometimes horribly.

As a kid whose cinematic tastes had graduated beyond G-rated Disney fare, the idea of an ‘adult’ cartoon had a lot of appeal. Hence, I loved Watership Down, which is still considered by many to be one of the greatest non-Disney, traditionally-animated movies of all time. Today, as a teacher instructing seventh grade students in persuasive writing - when I require them to view and write a review of a film - I occasionally truck out my copy of Watership Down. Even in this age of gory Japanese anime (or in the case of Sailor Moon, pedophile training ground), I still hear kids occasionally blurt out, “Holy crap, that bunny rabbit just got killed!”

Some of my students like the violence, others are shocked. The main problem most of them have with Watership Down is, in the filmmakers’ strive from realism, it is difficult telling the rabbits characters apart because they all look the same (a totally legitimate argument). And absolutely none of them knew why a film with such a title had no actual ships in it. Neither did I for the longest time. I had to look it up (it is the name of the grassy hill the rabbits discover in their quest for a new home, a place which actually exists in England). But even though Watership Down is a dark film, it is ultimately a life-affirming tale of selflessness, bravery and faith.

Not so with The Plague Dogs, which is easily the most nihilistic, brutal and bleak movie I have ever endured. Like Watership Down, it is animated and the fact it was made by the same director was the main reason I picked it up at the video store. But aside from the style of animation and British voices, the similarities end there. Unlike the somewhat-anonymous rabbits in Watership Down, we immediately form an attachment to the animal characters in The Plague Dogs, making subsequent events in the film so obscene.

The plot centers around two hapless pooches, Rowf and Snitter, trapped in a research facility which conducts cruel experiments on animals. Snitter is sort-of nuts, suffering the effects of experimental brain surgery. Rowf is repeatedly subjected to tests where researchers document how long he’ll struggle to survive by treading water before giving up and drowning, then they fish him out so they can repeat the experiment again the next day. This is all in the first five minutes of the film. It only gets worse from there. Rowf and Snitter manage to escape the facility, only to be relentlessly hunted by the local community and the military due to a falsified press release that the two dogs are carrying a lethal plague.

Through heart-breaking flashbacks, we learn Snitter was once a loyal pooch loved by his master. Later, while the two dogs are on-the-run, Snitter comes across the lone sympathetic human character in the movie, who is hunting in the woods. With the hope of finding a new master, Snitter is excited and hopeful, only to have this promising meet-&-greet end tragically when the dog’s paw hooks the trigger of the man‘s rifle, resulting in the man getting his face blown off. Rowf, on the other hand, has no illusions and doesn't trust humans, having never experienced bonding with a master. Along the way, the two dogs befriend Tod, a sly fox who ends up being killed while trying to help. During all this time, both dogs are becoming visibly thinner from hunger and are later forced to eat one of the very people hunting them in order to survive. 

At the end, surrounded by military guns and helicopters, Snitter and Rowf reach the coast. With no choice, they try to escape to the ocean and swim toward what they think is an island, when in reality, is just the setting sun. The film ends with the exhausted dogs, long past the point of no return, about to drown, yet still believing they’re going to find safety.

That’s it. And remember, this movie is a cartoon, and even though it is rated PG-13, I found it in the kids’ section of the aforementioned video store. What makes the movie even more of an ordeal is that the two main characters aren’t singing Disney dogs with sparky personalities reflective of the celebrities who voice them. They behave, think and speak the way we imagine real dogs would, unable to comprehend why all this is happening, yet remaining hopelessly optimistic that there is a human out there somewhere who will love them. This makes their ultimate fate as hard to watch as movies get.

The Plague Dogs is extremely well made; the animation and voice characterizations are as good as, if not better than, Watership Down. But it is also so dark, disturbing, relentlessly oppressive and so contemptuous of humankind that it makes Watership Down look like The Emperor’s New Groove (if you consider yourself a ‘dog person’ it will fuck you up for life). And this tone is set so early that the viewer is pretty damn certain within a few minutes that this is one movie where things are going to end badly. I have never seen a movie where more craft and care was taken in making sure its audience feels like total shit afterwards.

Yet whenever you come across various critic or fan lists of the most disturbing movies of all time, The Plague Dogs is almost never included. Is it because the film is animated, the atrocities presented are inflicted on dogs or that the movie simply hasn’t been widely seen? Whatever the case, the film is as painful to sit through as Schindler’s List, and although I admire it, I don’t think I could ever sit through it again, especially now that I own a dog.

THE SHINING: What? No Hedge Animals?

Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. (1980, 144 min)

I’m pretty certain that The Shining is the first film I ever saw where I had read the book first. That being said, it was also my first introduction to the enormous liberties filmmakers take when adapting novels to the big screen. Sure, I’d read Jaws, Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, but only after I'd seen the movies, which is not the same thing, mainly because I already had someone else's visualization of how events are depicted. 

Ever since ninth grade, I’ve been a huge Stephen King fan. His first book I read was The Stand, an apocalyptic, 800-page epic I managed to finish in a single day, partially because I was grounded over the weekend, but also because I simply couldn’t put it down. Of all of King’s eight billion novels, it remains my favorite, and I’m still waiting for a truly great movie adaptation. The 1994 miniseries was pretty faithful to the book, but in my humble opinion, it was kind of cheap and watered down. And I still can’t take Molly Ringwald seriously. I really wish someone in Hollywood would have the balls to do for The Stand what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings...a big-ass story which can only be told over the course of three movies.

But by the time I read King's The Shining, I still wasn’t really selecting books based on who wrote them, even though The Stand was uber-awesome. The only reason I chose to read The Shining was because, during my parents’ annual ritual of sending me and my sister off to my grandma’s house for a week every summer, it happened to be on her shelf (a free gift from her book club).

And the damn thing scared the shit out of me. The Stand may be King's best book, but to me, The Shining was his scariest. To this day, it is the only novel which made me afraid to turn out the lights at night. It also confirmed in my mind that Stephen King was the greatest writer ever.

So imagine the thrill I felt when I later learned it was going to be a movie. I just knew it was destined to be the scariest thing ever made, even scarier than The Exorcist. I couldn’t wait. The movie was especially a big deal in my hometown of Portland, Oregon because the exterior scenes of the Overlook Hotel were shot at Timberline Lodge, a ski resort only an hour’s drive away.

At that time, even though I loved movies, I didn’t know Stanley Kubrick from the Stanley Cup. The only Kubrick movie I’d seen at the time was 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played on TV, and all I could think about before changing the channel after 20 minutes was, “What the hell do these angry monkeys have to do with space?” Of course, when I got older, I learned to appreciate him as a genius, but as a 15-year-old who’d seen Star Wars but hadn’t yet discovered weed (which is still the best way to enjoy 2001), I was monumentally disappointed that I wasted so much time watching primates beat each other with bones.

Stanley Kubrick was an American director who lived in England and made a movie once every 600 years or so. He chose his projects very carefully and, like Alfred Hitchcock, he was the true star of his movies. Kubrick movies were celebrated events whenever he eventually chose to make one, which wasn’t often. Following Dr. Strangelove (my personal favorite) in 1964, Kubrick only made six more movies before he died in 1999. The guy was notorious for taking forever to set up individual shots, requiring tons of takes for every one of them. It has been well-documented that, during the making of The Shining, he rendered Shelley Duvall to tears because of the sheer number of takes he made her endure for a single scene. Then again, Shelly Duvall looks like someone you could render to tears just by looking at her cross-eyed.

Still, his films have a look and tone like no one else’s. They are epic and claustrophobic at the same time, slow-moving yet fascinating, beautiful to look at but sometimes (in the case of A Clockwork Orange) really disturbing. Kubrick tackled a lot of different genres, but somehow his movies all felt the same. When you’re watching a Stanley Kubrick movie, you know you’re watching a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Which is why he was totally the wrong guy to direct The Shining. Stephen King thought so, too, who once famously equated The Shining with a beautiful car that had no engine.

But I didn’t know all that at the time. All I knew was the scariest book I ever read was gonna be a movie, and I was gonna be first in line to get the bejeezus scared out me yet again. I only hoped I wouldn’t feel the need to crawl into my parents’ bed later, like I did after I first saw Jaws. At 16, that would be pretty weird.

That didn't happen, because the movie was a total letdown. Not scary at all. It was slow, long and stripped of nearly all the supernatural elements of the story that made it so scary in the first place. I couldn’t believe how much the movie strayed from the book. Where were the hedge animals? Where was the backstory that explained the Overlook Hotel’s dark past? Where were the phantasms who contributed to Jack Torrance’s descent into madness, or maybe even took possession of him? Kubrick took out all that stuff and more, leaving just the title, the initial premise and the characters. All of the scariest parts of the novel were taken out!

What we got instead was Jack Nicholson slowly going apeshit (which, admittedly, is pretty cool), with a few supernatural elements almost randomly crammed in towards the end. As a movie fan, I’ve got no problem with filmmakers making changes or taking liberties with the source novel to create a better movie experience (thank God Spielberg did so when making Jaws). But come on, why would you suddenly include a single random shot of a guy in a dog costume blowing someone if you aren’t going to explain why it is there?

Additionally, it’s one thing to make sweeping changes to an obscure novel, or one that wasn’t very good to begin with (like Jaws). But The Shining was already a huge, critically-praised bestseller by the time Kubrick got his hooks into it. One would think anybody involved in adapting a story like this would want to remain as faithful to the source material as possible (like the Harry Potter movies) just to please fans. I think if the movie was directed by someone with less clout than Kubrick, he or she would have done that very thing. Instead, Kubrick took an author’s story and used it as a springboard to make another Stanley Kubrick film, which is really its own little genre.

He’s done this before. Dr. Strangelove was based on the dead-serious novel of nuclear brinkmanship, Red Alert, by Peter George. By the time Kubrick had his way with it, Dr. Strangelove became a vicious satire and is still generally regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. But almost nobody remembers George’s novel.

Maybe that was Kubrick’s intention with The Shining, too. And maybe he succeeded, because his version is considered by countless viewers, critics and historians to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, most of whom probably never read the book. And even though I cried foul at the liberties Kubrick took with The Shining, I never actually read Red Alert, but think Dr. Strangelove is a great film. Maybe I'd think the same about The Shining if I hadn't read the book first, because Kubrick’s version of is indeed loaded with hypnotic scenes which often have little or nothing to do with the original novel, especially the endless use of Steadicam tracking shots.

Steadicam was a fairly new technology at the time, which allowed a cameraman to smoothly follow the action, no matter what the terrain. Kubrick utilizes the Steadicam like it's a new Christmas toy, so much so that these scenes dominate the viewer's attention. Yeah, it all looks really cool, but it is obvious Kubrick was far more in love with the setting in which he could play with his toys than the story, its characters or his actors.

Regarding the latter, the acting is awful, with two exceptions. One is Jack Nicholson’s totally unhinged performance as Jack Torrence (pretty much the same thing he did when single-handedly saving Tim Burton’s version of Batman a few years later). But even then, that was Jack being Jack Nicholson, not Jack Torrence. It’s pretty safe to say Jack's one-liners ("Heeere's Johnny!") are another reason The Shining is held in such high regard, though I personally think Jack's disturbing conversion in the bathroom with the ghost of Delbert Grady is by-far the best scene in the movie.

I’m also still pretty amazed at little Danny Lloyd’s performance as Jack's son; for a kid that age to hold his own against Nicholson…remarkable for a six-year-old kid. Once you get over Jack being Jack, Lloyd's might actually be the greatest performance in the whole film. The same can't be said for Shelley Duvall, as Jack's mousy wife, who truly sucks. Her performance in the early scenes border on amateurish, and as for her overwrought hysteria in later scenes, I still myself wishing Nicholson really would bash her brains “right the fuck in.”

It wasn’t until years later, after developing an appreciation for Kubrick, that I was able to detach myself of the source novel and at-least appreciate the movie for what it is…a great-looking piece of cinema that manages to feel epic and claustrophobic at the same time. Kubrick probably never meant for us to draw comparisons between the book and the film. I still don’t think it’s very scary, but it sure is fun watching Kubrick’s Steadicam chase little Danny around the hotel halls.

As a film, I still think The Shining is pretty overrated, far-more in love with style over substance, and I am still stunned by the number of highly-regarded critics who continue to rank it among the scariest movies ever. To those critics, I have to ask whether or not their assessment is swayed by their love of Kubrick, Nicholson's scenery-chewing or its technical virtuosity.

Is it creepy? Yes. Does it create a sense of dread in the viewer? Yes. Is it at least interesting enough to justify its 144 minute running time? Yes, but that's faint praise for a movie based on a book that once scared the living hell out of millions of readers. Although I must admit I like the movie for what it is (a deliberately-paced, hypnotic descent into madness), I can't help but think how truly scary this film would have been if it had simply stuck with the original story.

THE BLUES BROTHERS: The Guys' Musical

Starring John Belushi & Dan Ackroyd. Directed by John Landis. (1980, 133 min)

When I was a kid, I had this buddy named Matt Schuler, whose dad was the first in the neighborhood to buy a VCR (or VTR, as they were called back in the day), a mammoth box roughly the size of a Chevy Nova, which played Betamax tapes. I think his dad bought it primarily to record football and watch porn, but I was in awe because this giant machine was every movie lover’s dream...the ability to watch a real movie in the privacy of your own home, without waiting for it to come on HBO or for NBC to edit the shit out it two years after it showed in theaters.

Back then, there wasn’t a Red Box on every corner, no Netflix. There weren't even any Blockbuster stores, so to rent movies, one had to drive halfway across town to small video store called Video East, the only place in the area that supported this new technology. It was a wonderful place, with a huge selection of over 100 movies (not counting the pornos hidden behind some curtains in the back room).

One of those early videos was 1980's The Blues Brothers. I had seen it before. The Blues Brothers was a already a milestone in my young life because it was the first movie I invited a girl to on an actual date, where I picked her up and paid for everything. Her name was Molly, a cute girl I was friends with in high school. We went to the Foster Road Drive-In to catch the flick. Of course, the Foster isn't there anymore, long-ago replaced by an industrial park.

Back then, taking a date to a drive-in mostly meant one thing, and it wasn’t to watch the movie. But because my movie-geekness still outweighed my teenage urges, we actually sat in my car together and watched the movie, an act probably not expected from a teenaged kid with a girl seated next to him.

Hey, what can I say? Yeah, girls are awesome, but so are movies, especially when you have to pay for them with your meager allowance.

Anyway, after the show was over, I drove her home, we kissed goodnight and that was it. We never went out again afterwards, even though the date was great (at least I thought so) and we remained friends. I'm not sure why I never asked her out again. Maybe it was because the next girl I asked out definitely knew the purpose of drive-in dating, and didn't give a damn what was on-screen. After about five minutes with her, I didn't give a damn, either.

Anyway, a year or so after that date with Molly, The Blue Brothers was one of the first-ever movies available to rent and take home. In case you haven't seen it, the film is a musical comedy based on a recurring sketch from Saturday Night Live, back when that show was still funny. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd play Jake and Elwood Blues, two seedy musicians trying to save an orphanage from foreclosure by getting their band back together and doing a show. The thin plot is mostly an excuse to feature a lot of deadpan comedy, several musical numbers and, best of all, a shitload of car chases and vehicular mayhem.

Not to let my inner sexist show, but I'm a guy, and even though I have an appreciation for many classic musicals, I must grudgingly admit I think movie musicals are mostly a chick thing. As much as I can acknowledge the artistry and elegance of a film like The King and I, I really don't feel the urge to sit through it a second time. Yeah, I know it made Yul Brynner a star, but I grew up watching him blow away tourists in Westworld, blasting banditos in The Magnificent Seven and being all-around badass in The Ten Commandments. I've seen each of those movies at least ten times each. I've watched The King and I once.

That's how I'm wired. Hell, that's how most guys are wired. And as guys, we can't help-but-think how much more awesome The Sound of Music would have been if the Von Trapp family strapped on some Uzis and commenced cutting Nazis in half between musical numbers.

But The Blues Brothers? That is, without a doubt, the first-ever musical truly made for guys. The 1969 musical-western, Paint Your Wagon, where we are subjected to the horror of Clint Eastwood's vocal abilities, doesn't really count. That overblown cinema suppository was simply another corny old musical which happened to feature two woefully-miscast Hollywood tough guys (the other being Lee Marvin, who turned down the fucking Wild Bunch to do this). Pink Floyd The Wall doesn't count either. Yeah, we all loved Pink Floyd back then, but The Wall is notsomuch a movie as it is a 95 minute music video, and only interesting after you've addled yourself with enough LSD to declare Bob Geldolf a good actor.

What makes The Blues Brothers the first (and perhaps only) truly guys' musical is the fact that it is mostly rambling, shapeless and often-nonsensical, a hodge-podge of everything endearing to guys with the exception of gratuitous nudity. It has little more actual plot than The Road Warrior (surely the simplest story of all time). Sure, there are several musical set-pieces as expertly choreographed as anything in Singin' in the Rain, but for the most part, they do not serve the story in any way whatsoever, despite how great the songs are (especially when Arethra Franklin shows up to belt out the best number in the film). They pop-up almost randomly, as do the car crashes, guns, flamethrower attacks, building bombings, shopping mall destructions, Nazis, Orange Whips and gratuitous cameos by various actors, musicians, models & film directors.

Regarding Video East, which had a promotion going at the time Matt plucked it off the shelf...if you could accurately count the number of cars destroyed in the movie, you’d win 10 free rentals! That didn't seem to difficult...challence accepted! Once we got back to his house and shotgunned a few brews, we watched it closely, trying to keep track of all the vehicular carnage. It was easy at first, but became increasingly difficult as the movie progressed, especially during the last thirty minutes, during which time we just gave up (if you've ever seen the film, you know why). The vehicular attrition in The Blues Brothers must be seen to be believed. To this day, I am convinced tallying the automobile carnage in The Blues Brothers is an impossible task to all but the most dedicated movie geek, even with the ability to freeze a frame, but I had a sneaking suspicion that not even the proprietors of Video East knew the exact count.
By the way, according to IMDB, the number is 103, a record at the time, eventually broken by the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000.

THE ROAD WARRIOR: No Longer Science Fiction?

Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells and virginia Hey (that hot, bald Farscape chick). Directed by George Miller. (1981, 95 min)

My jaw continues to drop every time I pull up to the gas pump, the price per gallon seeming to rise on a daily basis, right along with my blood pressure. It wasn’t that long ago five bucks got me through the week. Now, it gets me to and from work once. Oh sure, the price drops a few cents every now and then, just enough for everyone to think $3.60 for a gallon of gas is a real bargain. But, sure as the tide, it’ll spike again to $3.80, then $4.00...etc.

The funny thing is...none of this has really changed anyone’s driving habits, including my own. We all still putter to work in our gas-chugging SUVs, and salivate as auto manufacturers roll out all new versions of V-8, hemi-powered Mustangs & Chargers. Face it...we’ll continue to fill our tanks no matter what the cost. When it comes to gasoline, we’re a nation of highway heroin addicts. And when the day comes when we can no longer afford it, we’ll steal it...hell, the number of “gas ‘n’ dash” crimes in this country has already risen dramatically.

Maybe it’s just a matter of time before a screaming psycho, sporting a mohawk, assless leather pants & spiked shoulder-pads, forces your car off the road, blows you away, then makes off with the liquid gold in your gas tank. All you smug tree-huggers, full of yourselves for shelling out tens-of-thousands for environment-friendly hybrids, will be singing a different tune when the gasoline-apocalypse comes and you’re taken down on the highway by crazy marauders hunting you down in their 300-horsepower death machines. You'll be as helpless as a seal pup in the jaws of a Great White.


I find myself thinking of The Road Warrior more and more every time I have to refinance my house to fill the gas tank. It’s also one of the first movies I ever saw that made the end of the world look like a lot of fun. Speeding down the road in a souped-up Barracuda, blowing people away, crashing cars...how cool would that be?

Of course, that was 1981. Now that I’m well-past the age where I’d look good in leather pants, I have to resign myself to the fact I’d probably be one of the first poor bastards raped and killed for the gas in my car.

The Road Warrior is a flick every self-respecting middle-aged male knows by-heart (right up there with Monty Python & the Holy Grail, A Fistful of Dollars and Apocalypse Now). It’s also, of course, the definitive chase movie, an apocalyptic Road Runner cartoon peopled by a cast dressed like they’re ready to get their freak on at an S&M nightclub (admit it...the movie is one of the gayest pieces of pop-culture to come along since Judas Priest strapped on leather & studs). Oh yeah, there’s also Mel Gibson in the role that made him an international star (long before used up all of his audience goodwill by revealing himself as a drunken Nazi). As Max, the burnt-out, dog food-eating cop who roams the post-WWIII Australian desert in search of fuel, Gibson is every bit the scavenger as the leather-clad gay boys chasing him down the highway. He’s also an shrewd opportunist. After the same band of marauders lay siege upon a refinery defended by the last remnants of civilization, Max offers to help these helpless folks escape the desert to freedom, so long as they give Max all the fuel his car can hold.

That’s one of the really cool things about Max; he’s only a hero by accident...all he wants is gasoline so he can keep speeding through the desert, and doesn’t really give a damn about the folks whose lives he’s saving. Hell, he even puts a kid (the monkey-boy who looks like he was inspired by that Cha-Ka thing from Land of the Lost) in harm’s way by making him climb onto the hood of a speeding truck, just to retrieve a shotgun shell so Max can blow someone else away.

YEAH!!!

The Road Warrior has one of the simplest plots in movie history, making the original Mad Max look like The Usual Suspects in comparison. No complex characters, no symbolism...just cut-and-dry good versus evil, with Max in the middle like an apocalyptic Shane. There’s very little dialogue; I’ll bet most porno scripts contain more verbal banter. Of course, that didn't stop a lot of cinema snobs from hiding their thrill-for-the-kill by wrapping The Road Warrior with misguided symbolism.

But who really cares about dialogue, plot or symbolism when you’re watching some of the greatest chase scenes ever shot? If you want to look for symbolism in a motorcyclist being crushed under a semi’s tires (in slow motion!), be my guest. While you’re explaining to your college roommate that a crushed biker represents the everyman ground up by the wheels of conformity, I’ll just crack open another brewski & watch the scene again at half-speed, just to see how real it still looks (by the way, it still does). You know, even 30 years later, I’m still wondering how director George Miller pulled some of these stunts off.

While I may no longer think the post-apocalypse hell-hole depicted in The Road Warrior would be such a kick to experience in real life, maybe the movie can still serve has sort of a how-to guide for the future. Sure, I could trade in my pick-up for a gas-friendly hybrid, but the thought of leather-clad crazies attacking me on the highway while driving such a puny putz-wagon keeps me from doing so. I want my next car to blow the doors off of any vehicle whose driver thinks they could take me down on the highway. Sure, you may laugh at my paranoia. The Road Warrior is just a movie, right? Then again, The Running Man seemed ridiculous at one time, too. Now that movie looks downright prophetic with all the reality crap vomiting from our TVs. But I’ll save that tangent for another time.

DAMNATION ALLEY: Fondly Remembered For Two Reasons

Starring George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent and Jackie Earl Haley (you know, that creepy kid from Bad News Bears who went on to be nominated for an Oscar as a child molester, before becoming the new Freddy Krueger). Directed by Jack Smight. (1977, 95 min)

This movie has the dubious distinction of being the one I’ve seen in a theater more times than any other. Not because it’s any good, or that I’m a big fan of Jan Michael Vincent (who the hell is?), but because when I was a kid I hung out at a theater called the Southgate, a quad cinema with a pretty relaxed security policy. You could easily sneak from theater to theater and see all four movies for the price of one. Me and my friends thought we were pretty clever, but with hindsight, I doubt the theater management actually cared, so long as they were selling popcorn.

Just about everyone I knew went to the Southgate every weekend to bump into people of the opposite sex (okay, it wasn’t exactly Studio 54, but we were 13, and it was within biking distance). Back then, long before home video or digital downloading, movies played in theaters a lot longer than they generally do now. One of those movies was Damnation Alley.

Don’t remember this one? Damnation Alley, based on a novel by Roger Zalanzy, is a post-apocalyptic ‘epic’ that was supposed to be the bigger blockbuster of two sci-fi movies 20th Century Fox released in 1977 (the other one was Star Wars, which the bigwigs at Fox apparently had no faith in). And even though Damnation Alley had a much bigger budget than Star Wars, it turned out to be a truly cheesy end-of-the-world movie in which a few survivors of a nuclear war trek across the country in a weird looking, armed-to-the-nuts, multi-wheeled tank called the Landmaster. As dumb as the movie is, I gotta admit the Landmaster is a pretty badass vehicle, making the Humvee look like a SmartCar. It would sure come in handy today during my frequent bouts of road rage (get off your goddamn phone or I'll shove a rocket up your ass!). By the way, the original Landmaster built for the film still exists in storage somewhere.

Also of note is Sound 360, an audio gimmick ballyhooed in Damnation Alley trailers the same way Sensurround was for movies like Earthquake. Sound 360 was a multi-channel system which supposedly created an audio experience allowing the viewer to feel like they were in the middle of the action. Which is all fine and good, provided one wants to be in the middle of the action. Today, such gimmicks as Sensurround and Sound 360 can easily be replicated by any home theater system, but back then, I suspect they were used to convince moviegoers they just paid to watch a better movie than they really were. Kind of like 3-D today. Sorry folks, if you need any technical assistance to improve a movie, than said-movie wasn't any good to begin with.

Anyway, Damnation Alley played at the Southgate for about two months, and since our other choices at the time was stuff like The Goodbye Girl and Annie Hall (a fine film, but Woody Allen’s brand of humor is sort of lost on 13 year olds), me and my friends ended up watching Damnation Alley a lot. It was part of a double-bill with Wizards, a sleazy and stupid animated fantasy flick that once duped people into thinking director Ralph Bakshi had talent. On the plus side, that was the first cartoon I ever saw where the female characters had nipples.

Speaking of nipples, on about my fifth or sixth viewing on Damnation Alley, I bumped into a girl from my school named Shelly Joslin, who was there with one of her friends. Shelly had the honored distinction of having the biggest boobs in the 8th grade, which I actually got to touch in the back row of Southgate’s auditorium #2. While George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent battled legions of killer cockroaches on the screen, I had my trembling hand up a girl’s shirt for the first time.

What does copping my first feel have to do with the movie? Not a damn thing, but whenever I fondly recall Damnation Alley, I don’t think of the ludicrous story, dumb pseudo-science or shoddy special effects that might have been impressive in 1960. I don’t think about the film’s characters being able travel across a radioactive wasteland without being covered in pus-oozing lesions. I don’t think about the ridiculous notion that the city of Albany survives unscathed, with white picket fences and green trees intact. I don’t think about Jackie Earl Haley, who played the young punk from The Bad News Bears and stretches himself here by playing another young punk. No, when I think of Damnation Alley, I still think of only one reason I still love it...Shelly Joslin’s boobs. Actually, that’s two things, isn’t it?

MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS: Porn for Teachers

Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Olympia Dukakis, Jay Thomas. Directed by Stephen Herek. (1995, 143 min)

I first saw this movie in the middle of trying to earn my teaching degree, so it did not inspire me to actually become an educator. It undoubtedly inspired others. Mr. Holland’s Opus is a pretty damned inspirational movie, and a refreshing (for the 90s) look at a teacher who is not some nube who takes a job in an urban hellhole to single-handedly turn a herd of gang-bangers into scholars. One thing the movie does do is make teaching look like a noble and ultimately rewarding profession.

Noble? I don’t know. After all, despite Hollywood’s historically romantic image of the teaching profession, it is still just a job. Most teachers I know look forward to summer breaks more than their students. Rewarding? Sometimes. There are occasional moments when you know you've done something to steer a kid's life in the right direction.

The job is sometimes pretty interesting, too. I teach seventh graders, who are an odd lot; half of them still play with Legos, the other half are already getting their freak on at school dances, dry-humping each other on the dance floor before one of us has to turn the hose on them. In fact, whenever I tell someone what grade I teach, I often get looks of sympathy.


Like any job, there are downsides. There’s the usual stuff you hear in the news, like budget problems, class sizes, violence, teachers as scapegoats for all the problems in schools. There are also a hell of a lot of people in the community who haven’t set foot in a classroom since they graduated, but think they know a lot more about your job than you do.

I’m also amazed every year at the number of parents who, even though their kids have been disrespectful bastards and failed every class for years, are convinced their child’s teachers are collectively conspiring against him. Then there are the parents who haven’t given a damn about their kid’s behavior or academic performance all year, but are the first to scream bloody murder when a teacher says or does something they don’t like. A few years ago I caught a boy hugging a female student in the hall (which is not allowed where I teach), and he got pissed off at me for catching him. He’d already been written up several times previously for the same infraction, but he accused me of   singling him out and got pretty damn disrespectful. This pissed me off because I’d always gotten along with the kid until then, and even let some of his behavior slide on occasion. When I took him aside, I berated him for his disrespect, saying I had cut him a “shitload of slack” in the past. Yes, the word shit slipped out; teachers aren’t perfect, but they are expected to be. Anyway, I wrote him up for his infraction, and not even two hours later I got a call from his mother, who was angry as hell that I swore. Never mind that the kid had been failing every class, all year, and had been written at least a dozen referrals for his behavior. The only time she called to express any concern was when her boy heard an expletive.

Then there was the time another male student wanted to use the restroom on a day a substitute teacher was filling in for me, but the kid had already used all of his passes. The sub followed procedure and refused…no pass, no exit from the class. The kid got defiant, then walked over to the trash can and pretended to piss in it, which apparently got a lot of laughs from the rest of the class. This kid also had a history of behavior problems and was not what you’d call an academic all-star. Still, he sometimes tried hard enough that I once bumped his D to a C so he could stay on the football team. When I returned to class the day after the incident, I wrote him up for his inappropriate behavior and had him call home. He got a hold of his mother and proceeded to blame me for not letting him use the bathroom (even though I wasn’t there and only reacting to the sub’s report). He conveniently left out the trashcan portion, and when she demanded to speak to me, she began with, “Listen, motherfucker…” before accusing me of picking on her son (even though I was the one responsible for keeping him on the football team). When I explained he was being written up for pretending to piss in a trashcan, she replied, “Well, did he actually do it?” When I replied no, she went off on me again. I guess it’s okay to pretend to piss in a trashcan as long as you don’t actually whip it out. Yeah, try that at your job and see how long you stay employed.

It’s stuff like that they do not prepare you for in college. Nor is it kind of stuff depicted in movies about teachers. Most movies featuring teachers fall under the following categories:

  • Teachers who are so righteous that their sainthood is all but guaranteed (Goodbye Mr. Chips).
  • Teachers who are villainous, indifferent and authoritative boobs worthy of audience ridicule (nearly every teen movie and rock video from the 80s).
  • New teachers so dedicated to their jobs that they buck the system and single-handedly change the lives of students who’d be in prison if it weren’t for their efforts (Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, Take the Lead, Coach Carter, ad nauseam). And of course, most movies which fall under that last category are “based on a true story”.
  • Teachers who have had enough, and are driven to use violent force in order to make things right (The Substitute, The Principal, One Eight Seven, Class of 1984). Actually, in the case of The Substitute, the main character, played with gusto by Tom Berenger, isn’t a real teacher; he’s mercenary who goes undercover at a Florida high school to find out who assaulted his girlfriend. But he does utter one line which damn near ever teacher I’ve ever met would love to lay on their students on the first day: “Fuck with me and you will face my wrath!”
  • Finally, there are those teachers who didn’t initially set-out to be teachers. Usually, they have loftier goals but must settle on something less. Only during the course of the movie do they truly discover the impact they have had on their kids, and now teaching is all they want to do. It’s also amazing how quickly most of these characters are able to attain a teaching license. I had to attended six years of college to attain the same credentials these characters apparently were able to bang-out in a weekend.
Mr. Holland's Opus falls under that last category. Richard Dreyfuss plays the title character, a musician with dreams of being a successful composer, but is forced to support his family by becoming a music teacher at an Oregon high school. He considers himself a musician, not an educator, and hates the daily grind of teaching and all that entails (troubled students, dealing with administrators, the conflict his job has with his ultimate goals). The film covers roughly 30 years of his career, and the whole time he’s thinking he’s been a failure, until he’s ultimately forced into retirement due to budget cuts. By now, teaching is all he wants to do. The film climaxes with a high school assembly, where dozens of former students show up to give tribute by performing the magnum opus he’d been working on for decades. Only then does Holland realize that his true calling wasn’t writing music; it was touching the lives of so many of his students, almost all of whom became successful adults.

As a real teacher, I can safely say this film has almost no baring on real life. After 15 years as an educator, I’ve known dozens of teachers who have taught as long as Holland, and none of them were ever forced into retirement. They may have enjoyed their jobs, but most have willingly stepped down in order to enjoy their sunset years, free from the endless burden, responsibility and constant scrutiny. In reality, teachers are just like everyone else in the workplace, doing their jobs as best they can before finally reaching that point in life when they happily leave it to someone else (perhaps some young rube romantically inspired by movies like Mr. Holland’s Opus)

But even after developing such a cynical view of the profession, I still love Mr. Holland’s Opus, a wonderfully sentimental film, impeccably acted (Dreyfuss earned a deserved Oscar nomination) and consistently entertaining despite its epic length. Who cares if it doesn't accurately reflect the profession? Such a film would be as intriguing as watching an accountant work his calculator. As a teacher, I'm sure as hell not gonna shell out any portion of my meager salary to watch some character spend his weekend correcting papers. I want to watch a teacher in a fantasy world, who manages to change the lives of every single student. In reality, that seldom happens, just like those who love porn will seldom encounter a horny, hard-bodied nymph willing to submit to his every whim.

I guess that makes Mr. Holland's Opus kind of like teacher-porn.

Movies are not supposed to be real; they are supposed to be entertainment. Does anyone really watch Lethal Weapon  for a realistic depiction of police work? Hell, no, because if Lethal Weapon truly reflected reality, we'd be sitting through Internal Affairs hearings and psychological examinations of Martin Riggs, both conducted to get this psycho-with-a-badge off the streets. But I'll bet a lot of cops still liked Lethal Weapon, enjoying the fantasy depiction of their mundane jobs. For me, it is the same with Mr. Holland's Opus. I'm no Mr. Holland, but wouldn't it be cool if I was?

In fact, my only beef with the film is the influence it has had over the years…not on movies, but on real-life educators. This one has undoubtedly inspired people to become teachers the same way Top Gun encouraged guys to join the Navy (probably thinking they'd immediately be dropped into a fighter plane). I also think it’s also mostly responsible for turning a lot of teachers into pompous, narcissistic, self-righteous bores. Sit in any room filled with teachers - staff meeting, workshop, college class - and one will inevitably raise their hand to proudly share a Mr. Holland moment, when they enlighten you with some saintly thing they’ve done to change students’ lives. His or her face is beaming proudly while the rest of the teachers in the room bob their heads in approval, looking like a bunch of well-dressed pigeons but not really listening. Most are just waiting for this idiot to stop so they can waste more oxygen with their own Mr. Holland moment.

Trust me, as much as I love my job, there is nothing worse than being in a room full of teachers.  Most love to hear themselves talk, love to explain how dedicated they are to their profession, love to ‘piggyback’ on someone else’s comment in order to spout more pretentious crap. And a lot of it is crap. Some people discuss their educational efforts in such detail that it soon becomes obvious there are not enough hours in the day for them to accomplish what they claim. Of course, none of these soapbox-squatters has ever had a student who could be most-accurately described as little bastard or dumbass; those kids are simply misunderstood, troubled or challenged. And of course, none of these teachers have ever failed to turn a little bastard’s troubled kid’s life around.

Sit in a room with these people and you’ll walk away with the impression that all of them are 100% successful, 100% culturally sensitive, 100% empathetic and 100% incapable of anger towards students. Some of them even act like they'd even teach for free. Sure, some might, but most of us are human and leave our superhero cape at home when going to work. The bullshit meter climbs into the red pretty quickly whenever a bunch of teachers flock together.

One might argue that any inspirational movie about an educator could cause this, not just Mr. Holland’s Opus. But the difference is Holland isn’t some uber-teacher who saves a school, challenges authority for the sake of the kids or turns a class full of homies into valedictorians in a single semester. Holland is just an ordinary guy who learns to love his job over the course of 30 years, and touches some lives along the way. Even the self-serving teachers I’m forced to endure in meetings realize they are not Erin Gruwell or Jaime Escalante, but they can easily envision themselves as Mr. Holland. A lot of them probably think they already are.

JAWS: Forbidden Fruit

Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss. Directed by Steven Speilberg. (1975, 124 min).

If you weren’t around in the summer of 1975, it’s hard to imagine the impact this movie had on everybody. Not just audiences, but society in general, including my mother. The first true summer blockbuster, Jaws scared the bejeezus out of damn near everybody, so much that many won’t even venture into the ocean to this day (including yours truly). I was 11 when it came out, and based on what my lucky friends who saw it had said, Jaws was numero uno on my gotta-see list.

My mom shot down my plans pretty swiftly. “You are not going to see that. My friend at work told me a dog gets eaten, and a dead man is floating in the water with no eyes.”

This was still a few years before questioning her authority was an option. I was heartbroken. There it was, the mother of all movies, the cinematic Holy Grail playing at the Southgate theater only five miles away, rendered forbidden fruit by my mother. Sure, I knew the whole story already, enthusiastically told to me by friends whose parents had no objections to letting them see it. But because it was rendered off limits, Jaws became the only movie I wanted to see. In ensuing months, I would occasionally ask Mom again, hoping she’d change her mind, but was always met with a stern no. She’d offer the same reason every time: “That’s not the kind of movie a kid should see.”

On rare occasions when I felt brave, I’d counter with, “But it’s rated PG. You’ve let me watch PG movies before, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“Butch Cassidy never devoured the Sundance Kid,” she said, probably proud of her response. “Jaws is a horror movie, and you’re not going to see a horror movie about a fish that eats people. It‘ll give you nightmares.”

It was at this time I’d usually sulk back to my room, not understanding her reasoning. I’d watched lots of horror movies before, but for some reason she had a problem with Jaws. And with my limited debating skills, I was unable to convey how much it meant to me to actually see a fish eat people.

It helps at this point to know a little about my mom. She’s a wonderful person and has always looked out for me, feeling the need most good parents do of protecting them from things in the world which could harm them. Yeah, as I got older, I sometimes felt like she was a bit overprotective and was sometimes bewildered at the pieces of pop culture she decided I wasn’t ready for. I bought an Alice Cooper album in the fifth grade and was listening to it one evening when she suddenly popped into my room, right when Alice was singing about keeping a dead woman in a refrigerator. Grabbing the lyrics sheet, Mom was aghast and instantly forbade me from buying any more Alice Cooper records. Funny thing is, I was just a kid and didn't care about the words and had no idea what the offending song (“Cold Ethyl”) was actually about. I just thought it sounded cool. The only reason I learned the subject of the song was because she pointed it out. This new knowledge ironically made the song even cooler.

Okay, as a parent myself, I can now understand her concern over what her son was listening to. So even though I thought Mom was being a bit overzealous, it was her right as a parent to express her concerns.

However, when I later got into a band called Emerson, Lake & Palmer, she and my dad eventually forbade me from buying their records simply because they personally hated the music. It had nothing to do with what they sang about. But again, since they were paying the bills and I was living under their roof, doing so was still their right (although, somewhat amusingly, as my musical tastes eventually turned to heavy metal, I distinctly remember, during a shopping trip when I planned on snapping up the latest Judas Priest album, Mom suggested, “Why don’t you buy an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record? You used to love them.”)

What Mom declared forbidden was actually pretty random. She decided I couldn’t see Phantasm because of the tagline, “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead,” yet she had no problem dropping me and two friends off to catch Dawn of the Dead, a movie so gory that it was released unrated, at a seedy little theater whose employees never checked IDs. Ironically, the movie playing with Dawn at the time was Phantasm.

Even more perplexing was her decision to forbid me from seeing The Gauntlet, a fairly minor (and stupid) movie in the Clint Eastwood canon, but simply something I had expressed an interest in watching. Yeah, that movie was rated R, but I’d seen rated R movies before, including Blazing Saddles, which they took me to (if you’ve never seen Blazing Saddles, let me tell you that the liberal use of the ‘N-word’ would shock modern audiences). Mom even had no problem with dropping me off at the Southgate to allow me to engage in the illegal act of theater hopping to watch all the movies playing at this four auditorium theater for the price of one ticket. For some unfathomable reason, sneaking into movies without paying was okay, but The Gauntlet was forbidden.

Anyway, back to Jaws. In November, on my 12th birthday, Mom suddenly decided it was okay for me to invite a couple of friends to see it. By this time, the film had been out for six months. Everyone else and their dog had already seen it, including my two friends, but that didn’t matter. After months of hype and hearing everything second-hand, I finally got to see this pop culture phenomenon for myself.

Jaws takes place in the fictional coastal town of Amity (in real life, Martha’s Vineyard), where a 25-foot great white shark starts attacking swimmers. In order to save this vacation town from financial ruin, sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and loony charter boat captain Quint (Robert Shaw) set out on a rickety fishing boat to kill the shark. That’s the movie in a nutshell, and while it doesn’t sound like much on paper, the story is so masterfully told that it rightfully made a superstar out of young director Steven Spielberg. We don’t even see the shark until about halfway through, which made it even scarier (it has been well-documented that the decision not to show the animal too much stemmed from the fact the mechanical shark broke down pretty often).

The final act (onboard the fishing boat) is still one of the most relentless and entertaining third acts ever made. And who really cares if you can’t actually blow up a three ton shark by shooting the scuba tank lodged in its mouth? It’s no more ridiculous than Jeff Goldblum destroying an entire alien civilization in Independence Day by firing up his laptop, and sure as hell a better ending than the one offered by original Jaws author Peter Benchley, where the shark simply rolls over and dies. By the way, if you never read the original novel, don’t bother. It sucks.

But why the hell am I summarizing the plot? Most of you probably got to see this before I did.

To this day, Jaws is one of the few movies that lived up to all the hype…and then some. We’ve all gotten amped-up to see uber-promoted blockbusters only to walk out of the theater thinking, “So what?” But Jaws was everything I hoped it would be: scary, funny, surprising. It was not the shocking gore-fest Mom feared - only five people are actually killed - and the poor little pooch she was so worried about doesn‘t die onscreen…in fact, it’s only implied that he dies. There is that jolting scene of one victim’s head popping at the screen with an eye missing, which scared me so bad my popcorn went flying, but Jaws was always more than just a “gotcha” horror movie. Leaving the theater, I felt like I saw just something special, more than just another flick my parents dropped me off to see while they went shopping. In ensuing years, not too many movies gave me that same rush. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Escape from New York (I’ll explain that last one another time) immediately come-to-mind, and the last movie to hit me with the impact of Jaws was Pulp Fiction.

But, just like my mom feared, the movie did give me nightmares. After coming home from the movie on my 12th birthday, some time during the night I crept into my parents’ room and crawled into bed with them. Man, that guy with his eyeball missing really did freak me out.

By the way...Jaws is still my favorite movie.

THE SWARM: Not A Film To Watch When Chemically-Altered

Starring Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Olivia De Havilland, Richard Chamberlain, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Slim Pickens, Henry Fonda. Directed by Irwin Allen. (1978; 155 min)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, drugs were still cool. I knew a guy named Scott, who spent most of his high school years in a pot-induced haze. He was the typical likeable stoner present in every high school, mainly because he had an endless supply of weed he was willing to share with anyone in the room at the time he decided to load a bowl. Hence, I hung out with him a lot.

Scott was also a closet scientist, a trait which only came to the surface when he was high. He wouldn’t do jack-shit in biology class, but was more-than-willing to conduct experiments with the able assistance of Panama Red. Baking in his garage one night while his parents were out of town (which was often), me and a few buddies listened to Scott’s theory about digestion. He put-forth that corn showed up in shit because it wasn't chewed up enough, so it stood to reason that if you swallowed a sardine whole, you’d have a turd sprouting fins in the toilet bowl a few hours later. We never discovered if his hypothesis was true - though we did manage to get him to swallow a whole sardine without killing himself - because, like most people in our condition, the overwhelming urge to crash in front of the TV while passing around a box of Apple Jacks outweighed the need to carry on in the name of science.

Nobody had cable back then, although HBO was becoming available to those willing to stick a dildo-shaped antenna on their roof. Scott’s parents weren’t among that group, so the only thing this night on TV was The Swarm, Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer bee epic. I saw the movie when it first came out, and even then I knew this was one of the movies which would essentially kill the disaster movie craze in the 70s. But it plays a lot better when you’re high. When you’re high, the lousy special effects take on a surreal look, and there are plenty of dull stretches in-between the attack scenes to run into the garage and fire up another bowl. There’s also the tendency to seriously ponder whether or not a swarm of bees could actually cause a train to derail or a nuclear power plant to explode. Sober folks wouldn’t engage in such a debate. They know better.

Though we had abandoned the sardine experiment, we did manage to come up with a few other conclusions, even if the Scientific Method was no longer foremost on our minds. One thing we discovered was that Michael Caine (and his goofy hair, one of God’s crueller jokes) isn’t someone you should watch when you’re chemically imbalanced. His performance in The Swarm, with his weird gaze & deadly-serious delivery of dialogue that makes a Godzilla movie sound like the prose of Tennessee Williams, had me convinced he was trying to mess with my head. And when he pulled out his trusty pouch of sunflower seeds, it had Rick (one of the other guys hanging out that night) wanting to head to 7-Eleven to grab a bag of his own. Fortunately, he couldn’t find his car keys.

We also discovered Scott was willing to fuck anyone...even Olivia De Havilland, who in The Swarm plays an elderly school principal in being courted by geezers Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray. Yeech.

“Man, I’d do her,” Scott stated matter-of-factly.

What?” replied Jeff, another guy in our cannibus crew in between handfuls of dry Apple Jacks. “She’s a thousand years old and 300 pounds! I suppose you’d do that military dude, too.”

“Richard Widmark,” I interjected, being the only movie geek in the bunch.

“Whatever.”

Scott ignored my clarification of the film’s cast and said to Jeff, “Yeah, but dude, if she was the only chick around and the lights were off and...she's got a nice mouth and everything...” (It was at this point I realized career stoners probably would fuck anything). Then he looked at me. “Dave, you’d do her if there was no one else around, wouldn’t ya?”

“Maybe if she was the Gone with the Wind Olivia De Havilland,” I replied.

Gone with the Wind? That’s my grandma’s favorite movie!” Scott started laughing uncontrollably, apparently enjoying the punchline to a joke only he understood. At this point in the film, the killer bees caused a train carrying much of the cast - including Olivia - to tumble down a mountain in a fiery blaze, thus ending the debate whether or not she was fuckable. Besides...it was time to go back out to Scott’s garage to refuel during the commercial break.

Speaking of Olivia De Havilland, her role in the The Swarm has absolutely no impact on the plot at all. She’s introduced in a few pointless scenes before plummeting to her death.. You could take out every frame she appears in and she wouldn’t be missed at all. You could say that about half of this ‘all-star’ cast...Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Richard Chamberlain, Patti Duke (in a hilariously random scene of blooming love for her physician, even though her husband just died!), Jose Ferrer, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray...all included for no other reason than to boost The Swarm’s marquee value. Hell, it worked for Allen’s The Towering Inferno. Surely it’d work again, right?

But the difference is, despite its cornball melodrama, The Towering Inferno is actually a good movie, mainly because Irwin Allen only directed the action scenes. He left the ones involving real actors to John Guillermin. In addition, even though a large portion of the cast popped-up in little-more than glorified cameos, we cared about their characters enough so that when one died horribly, at least the audience felt something. Not so with The Swarm, the first of Irwin Allen’s disaster films where he handled all directorial chores. This is when we realized that this ‘Master of Disaster’, as he was fondly called when the genre was at its peak, really had no inherent filmmaking talent of his own. The gratuitous cameos are often so random and out-of-place that (along with the worst dialogue ever uttered in a big-budget film) you can’t help but laugh. Seeing it today, once you throw in the shoddy special effects, you have one of the most unintentionally funny films of all time. Imagine if Ed Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space) was given an unlimited budget, access to major Hollywood stars, and a script written by a community college creative writing class, all working on individual scenes without knowing what the other writers are doing. Put all that together and you end up with The Swarm.

And it’s for all those reasons that The Swarm is so damned fun. It’s one of those rare birds...a film with a gigantic budget and a huge cast, squandered by a hack once revered for creating a genre, only to destroy that genre (and his reputation) by believing all the media hype the bestowed him. And The Swarm was definitely the biggest nail in the disaster movie coffin. For one film to single-handedly destroy a genre, it must be worth seeing. As such, The Swarm does not disappoint.

A few years later, Airplane! was released, exploiting every disaster movie cliche for laughs and making sure the genre stayed dead for the next two decades. But now that both Airplane! and The Swarm are thirty-year-old relics, try watching the two of them back-to-back today. Both are still hilarious, but for different reasons. Airplane! is still funny, but because it knowingly parodies a genre popular of the time, many of its most hilarious moments may be lost on modern audiences. But The Swarm, by virtue of its sheer awfulness, is even funnier. One only has to see Richard Widmark’s performance to appreciate that. Here’s a guy whose been a reliable co-star his entire career, applying the same earnestness to this role, only stuck being the dumbest character in the film. As General Slater, he repeatedly suspects the motives of Bradford Crane (Michael Caine), who has done nothing but help resolve the killer bee situation, yet Slater still orders his second-in-command (Bradford Dillman) to ‘build up a dossier’ on the scientist. To what end? Does Slater really think Crane is in league with the bees? It’s to Widmark’s credit that he approaches the role with the same seriousness he once did for Kiss of Death.

It’s also to Caine’s credit that, even though he sometimes looks like he knows this was the worst film he’d ever signed on for (at the time), he never offers a knowing wink over the ridiculousness of the story, nor does he look like he’s about to lose his lunch with the next stupid line he’s forced to utter. I can’t begin to imagine the gorge he made himself swallow when doing Jaws: The Revenge.

On an awesome footnote, though, The Swarm offers something no other disaster film did at the time. You know the perky/smart-aleck/adorable kid who pops up in every one of these movies, the one you wished would die but never does? Well, in The Swarm, that kid dies. It's supposed to be a tragic moment (swelling music, crying doctor at his death bed), until you remember that this little bastard was also responsible for several hundred deaths because he just had to taunt the bees.

Simply put, The Swarm may be the greatest bad movie of all time...more fun than a barrel of Twilights.

I bought The Swarm when it came out on DVD, and have enjoyed it more than any of Irwin Allen’s other films. Allen himself died in 1991, and no, I wasn’t invited to the funeral, so I imagine the eulogy covered only his greatest successes (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Allen’s various TV shows in the 60s). Too bad, because, as much as I love Poseidon and Inferno, they aren’t as much dumbass fun as The Swarm.

Regarding the night me and my buddies baked ourselves in front of the TV back then, I eventually lost touch with Scott. Like a lot of stoner friends we may recall fondly, he’s got no Facebook page, nor have I seen him at any reunions. I dunno, maybe he’s still in front of his TV, lusting after Olivia De Havilland. I only hope he’s a little more sober, and being so, perhaps checked out some of De Havilland’s older movies, when she was certainly younger and hotter than she was in The Swarm.