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Friday, November 20, 2020

Gun Girls

Gun Girls
1957
Robert C. Dertano

Gun Girls takes elements of the Juvenile Delinquent (J.D.) films of the era and mixes it with a bleak film noir aesthetic. It opens with a lengthy speech that most J.D. films usually close with, the warning that the youth are out of control and are going to not only destroy themselves but somehow bring America to its knees in the process. The parole officer delivering this speech is quick to point out that kids don’t go bad because they are rich or poor, they go bad because…. uh, well… he never quite gets there. Kids go bad because they are young and the vaguer a film like this can make that threat the more sensational it is and the more curious viewers will be to see it.

"Ladies, I assure you that I have your breast...er,
best interests at heart."

Interestingly Gun Girls starts in media res with Dora (Jacqueline Park) already having trouble with the law and going on probation for committing various petty crimes with her friend, Teddy (Jeanne Ferguson). We aren’t seeing someone innocent seduced into a life of crime, Dora is already in and shows no signs of slowing down. Dora and Teddy sell their stolen goods to a guy named Joe (Timothy Farrell). Joe sells them some guns and encourages them to steal the payroll from a company. The Gun Girls use their friend Joy (Eve Brent) to gain access to the building, but things go wrong. In the fallout, the girls are looking to leave town and Joy needs to tell Joe that she is pregnant and wants him to marry her. Things get even worse and because this is a J.D. film and a noir everyone dies horribly.

This is a cheap little production, but the grainy film and threadbare sets enhance the experience. They give everything a seedy look that melds into the story perfectly.

"The painting isn't that bad is it?"

Gun Girls is interesting in that you can watch it in two completely different ways simultaneously. On one level you can enjoy its preachy scaremongering for the kitschy fun it is. Gun Girls paints a world where these high school girls are the most dangerous criminals their town has ever seen. They are wild and dangerous to the established patriarchal order and it's glorious to see them push back against the staunch unmoving world of the 1950s.

The second way of watching it is taking in the unflinching grimness. Gun Girls tackles a lot of things and does so in a pretty direct way for the 1950s, casual sex, unwanted pregnancies, murder, and the inescapable doom these women face as all the men working against them descend on them for stepping out of line. The noir elements really take hold in the third act and don’t let up. 

If you are looking to take a look at the J.D. phenomenon of the 1950s and need something that you can enjoy for its corniness but also take seriously at the same time Gun Girls is a shining example of the genre. It is also a great little film to see women as the lead anti-heroes of the story in an era when gender roles were strictly enforced.  


Friday, November 13, 2020

Relaxer


Relaxer
2018
Joel Potrykus

The year is 1999 and the world is on the precipice of  theY2K disaster. Cam (David Dastmalchian) is constantly taunting his younger brother, Abbie (Joshua Burge) into completing challenges. These range from drinking a gallon of milk in an hour to glitching a level on a game. Abbie has always failed, and his brother seems to take delight in torturing him. Finally, Cam has issued a challenge from a Nintendo Power magazine; Beat the fabled level 256 on Pac-Man without leaving the couch and before Cam returns from a trip. Abbie is bound and determined to beat this challenge, even if he has to bend reality to do it.

How did they film in my workroom?

Relaxer is a beautiful example of the line that runs between comedy and horror. It is an absurdist tale that never takes its increasingly ridiculous story as anything less than serious. This is why it works; it stays invested in its tiny world and never steps back to comment on how potentially silly it all is. It also takes careful steps in imbuing its would-be hero with a level of tragedy that drives a darker narrative just underneath the surface. Abbie takes a complete journey as a person, yet we never leave his tiny room. 

Abbie is an interesting central character. We can tell right away that he has a very damaging past. Just how damaging becomes more and more horrific as the story goes on. It becomes the fulcrum on which the story moves back forth from absurd comedy to absurd tragedy. Abbie is constantly taken advantage of by his older brother Cam and it is infuriating and difficult to watch. When Cam finally tasks Abbie with reaching the impossible level 256 on Pac-Man, we can’t help but root for him. We want Abbie to get up off the couch, step out from the squalor and realize his delusions, but they are too powerful, and that direct method of escape just isn’t within his grasp. He must find another way out and we are drawn into that escape. Is it real? Does it matter by the end?

This is easily the stickiest movie I've seen all year.

Despite being confined to a single location and a single piece of furniture, Relaxer has a marvelous look. The apartment is a tribute to grungy squalor. It feels like many people’s first apartment or dorm room filled with barely any furniture, grimy walls, full of food wrappers, and spotted with graffiti. It is an uncomfortable space and we are confined to it along with our protagonist. The setting becomes as much of an endurance test for the audience as it is for Abbie.

Relaxer is a bizarre black comedy with plenty of uncomfortable humor and some truly astounding plot turns by the third act. It also has a solid emotional core as we watch Abbie struggle with a lot in life and try to overcome all the issues that he has been saddled with. It all concludes with an ambiguously chilling ending that makes Relaxer a great little film and a must for the lover of strange movies.


Friday, November 6, 2020

The Cathode Ray Mission of 2020

 


The Cathode Ray Mission set out to watch spooky television programs during the entire month of October in the horrorshow that is 2020. Here is what we discovered:

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Cathode Ray Mission 31 - The Scariest Thing on Televsion

The Scariest Thing on Television

What is the scariest thing to ever appear on television? Is it Pipes from Ghostwatch (1992)? Perhaps the scarecrow from Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) should take the crown? Maybe seeing the king of horror himself, Freddy Krueger, hosting Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1990).

Wrong.

The actually scientifically proven ‘scariest thing on television’ appeared on television in the December of 1976 on a little known program called The Muppet Show. The skit was called Psychiatrist Machine. In it, Fozzie Bear is strangled to death by the horrifying grasping arms of the beast known only as Vendaface.


Vendaface’s reign of terror would continue in two more skits where characters would find themselves mangled while its glaring glowing eyes looked on. Vendaface would attempt to kill again by changing its identity to Vendawish for one more episode before disappearing into the grey netherworld. There it waits ever patient, ever ready to stretch out its long arms with wonderful clamps to mutilate again.

My working theory is that Vendaface is also the basis for Lament Configuration from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Both devices attract those with unfulfilled needs, both of them demand sacrifices to operate, and both plunge their users into a world of torment and desire that they themselves wanted all along. I’d like to confirm with Barker on this but he won’t return my emails.


Thus concludes the Cathode Ray Mission. Happy Halloween from Outpost Zeta!





Friday, October 30, 2020

Cathode Ray Mission 30 - Invitation to Hell


Invitation to Hell
1984
Wes Craven

All I can say is wow. I had vague memories of catching this movie as a kid and not understanding it very well. It turns out that was completely justified because this made for TV movie is entirely bananas. Robert Ulrich stars as a man who has moved his family to a new city after landing a job with a large tech firm. Everyone important in his neighborhood belongs to a health club called, ‘Steaming Springs’ (it’s ok to giggle, I sure did.) Invitation to Hell lets you know something is up within seconds as the owner of Steaming Springs (Susan Lucci just destroying everything with overacting) flash fries a chauffeur with her mind just before the opening credits.

What appears to be a typical 'Satan corrupts a family story' goes wild in the third act. There are people casually dressed as Nazis at a costume party. Robert Ulrich dons a weaponized spacesuit in order to dive into hell to rescue his family. There are explosion, fire, and plenty of TV-quality special effects. What starts as a slightly ho-hum TV movie transforms into a wild ride that would probably be heralded as a bigger cult classic had it ever found its way into a movie theater.

This was a delight that a) solved a childhood mystery of what weird-ass show I saw and b) reintroduced me to such a strange little gem.

Watch Invitation to Hell, it is worth your time.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Cathode Ray Mission 29 - Nightmare Cafe - Aliens Ae My Lunch

"Nightmare Cafe tried to add a giant talking booger to the cast
to save it from cancellation but it was too late."


Nightmare Café
S01E06 Aliens Ate My Lunch

Whelp here we are the final episode of Nightmare Café and what an odd yet totally fitting send-off for this strange messy footnote in television history. Aliens Ate My Lunch is an outright comedy. A tabloid writer rolls into a small town with three little people he picked up along the way and stages a fake alien invasion to get a story. Things get out of control and the employees of the café step-in to try and keep anyone from getting killed.

The good: Anything that opens with cows being abducted by aliens is ok by me and it’s a clever detail at the beginning of the episode that demonstrates something is up beyond the simple comedy plot. Robert Englund dressed as a farmer complete with seed cap and overalls is a delight. Bobby Slayton is fun as the tabloid reporter and appears to be really enjoying his time on screen.

The bad: The comedy is broad and not well delivered. Every new character creeps on Fay and it is supposed to be funny but it just feels gross. Frank is a huge fan of this tabloid reporter which seems to be a detail that doesn’t fit his character and comes out of nowhere. There is a lengthy unfunny epilogue that tries making this episode feel like some kind of finale but it is pretty obvious it never was intended for that.

The great: I’m pretty sure they stole footage from The Aurora Encounter(1986) for this episode

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Cathode Ray Mission 28 - Nightmare Cafe - Sanctuary for a Child

"Look kid, if there's a People Under the Stairs sequel put in a good word for me."

Nightmare Café
S01E05 Sanctuary for a Child

Nightmare Café turns into a sort of Quantum Leap with more confusing rules this episode as the café appears in Frank’s home town. A young boy wanders in and leaves soon after. We discover that Frank’s friend and formal romantic rival has a child who lies dying in a coma from an accident. Is it the same child that Frank finds himself visiting via the café? Yes, of course, it is.

Dying children probably isn’t the kind of nightmare most people had in mind when tuning in. If the early episodes were crime dramas with a sprinkle of the supernatural, Sanctuary for a Child is a movie of the week with plenty of melodramatic schmaltz. The story isn’t nostalgic enough to push it into Ray Bradbury territory but it definitely feels like that is the angle being taken. I will give this story kudos for not pulling back with a last-minute reprieve from death; at least it is willing to fully commit to its story and add a touch of darkness to a story that could have been sickly sweet. 

The one thing I find very curious is how each episode of Nightmare Café will focus on a single story. Most television breaks a story into an A and B plot to give our leads both something to do, but Nightmare Café focuses on a single story and generally gives one of our two characters the most to do.

One more to go and we will be coming to the end of our tour of Nightmare Café. Can it deliver one solid scare before its demise?