Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

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The Wynorski Project Part Eight & Nine Concluded

The Wynorski Project

Part 8 and 9

Sorority House Massacre II & Hard to Die

Part Three

Last week I discussed my belief that by completely stripping his films of any discernable subtext, Wynorski ended up producing works that are ultimately guilty of every criticism (usually unfairly) thrown at the slasher genre. For all his humorous riffing, the results are every bit as misogynist and misanthropic as most ignorant people incorrectly believe horror films to be.

What I didn’t say is that despite (or—more accurately—because of) this the two films are compulsively and irresistibly watchable. As disdainful as Wynorski seems to be of his audience, there’s no denying that he’s giving them massive heaps of what they want. The overt sexuality of the films goes beyond mere prurience to pornographic excess, but the quality of that excess is such that it’s very hard to look away. Wynorski clearly knows this. ‘Give ‘em enough T&A and they’ll forgive you anything,’ being the apparent unspoken motto that defines much of his work.

But is he truly at peace with this? After watching his brief cameo in Hard to Die this becomes a legitimate question. The scene in question occurs when two detectives (who only appear in the film because they also appeared in Sorority House Massacre II and no one could be bothered to figure out how to get rid of them in the rewritten script) break in on a porno shoot to interview an adult film actress (Wynorski regular, Monique Gabrielle, who appears twice in the movie—billed first as“Carolet Girard” in the part of the porn star and then as “Lucy Burnett” for the part of a homely Chinese food delivery woman, which is very similar to her short cameo in Not of This Earth. Two years later she would play the final girl in Fred Olen Ray’s Evil Toons, which is as much a remake of SHMII as HtoD is) who used to work at the lingerie company where all the mayhem is occurring. 

Playing the part of the exasperated director is Wynorski himself, who—when accused of making “pornography”—defends himself by saying “…It’s tough enough making a picture these days without making certain—shall we say— ‘concessions’ to public taste….” On the face of it, it would seem like he’s winking at his audience again. Giving them an in-joke they can chuckle over and appreciate for its self-deprecating irony, but this ignores the fact that when the movie was made in 1990 Wynorski was still a fairly anonymous Corman hack who most genre fans wouldn’t recognize in a police line-up, much less in an in-joke cameo.

This makes me wonder if maybe he cast himself as the pornographer not because a handful of Corman insiders would find it amusing, but as a form of cinematic Freudian slip. Is it possible that Wynorski really imagines himself as an artist forced to debase himself to satisfy the public’s need for sex and violence?

Probably not, but it will be interesting to see if any similar cameo’s are made in later productions where he abandons all pretense of respectability and just flat out makes softcore porn (see future reviews of The Bare Wench Project 1, 2 & 3). I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the cameo is just a goof, but it’s the kind of goof pretentious asshole reviewers like me cannot help themselves from grasping on.

 

Beyond Wynorski’s cameo, though, the other interesting part about this scene is that it is clearly based on the scene in SHMII where the same two cops (the female half of whom is played by Wynorski regular Toni Naples, working under the name Karen Chorak) go to a strip club to talk to the younger sister of the girl who killed the maniac whose spirit is causing all of the mayhem back at the sorority house.

 

Watching as a hyper-aware genre-enthusiast, it was this scene that caused my brain to start doing backflips, because with it Wynorski manages to take SHMII and turn it from being an unrelated in-name-only sequel to Sorority House Massacre into an alternative universe sequel to Slumber Party Massacre, from which the flashback footage is taken. Having at that point already written about Slumber Party Massacre II (rather successfully—if a comment made at the 37 minute point of this YouTube video is to be believed) I was dumbfounded to see Wynorski take the character Deborah Brock had cast as a virginal member of an all-girl pop band into a slutty, fishnet clad stripper.

My first thought was of Uatu the Watcher, the big-header star of Marvel Comics What If…. series, in which popular Marvel Universe stories were upended with simple twists of fate. For example, issue #7 dealt with what would have happened if someone other than Peter Parker had been bit by that radioactive spider that fateful day. The most amusing aspect of the series was how it allowed the writers to let loose with their wildest apocalyptic, nihilistic fantasies, as virtually every scenario seemed to end with the destruction of the universe (thus proving that the way it “really happened” was truly meant to be).

As unintentional as this had to be on Wynorski’s part, it does force an inevitable comparison between his and Brock’s takes on the slasher genre and it’s one where he definitely does not come out on top. Whereas Brock was able to make the first slasher film that was set entirely in the pov consciousness of a young woman’s mind, Wynorski was only able to deliver a film that aims for moronic parody and fails.

 More telling, though, is the profession chosen for the character in SHMII. The fact is that in a film already so full of gratuitous nudity the strip club sequence is by far the unnecessary and redundant. Knowing what I do about his previous work, I suspect both it and the rest of the police sequences were added late to the script when it became evident the original draft was too short. I’d even guess they were shot long after the film was first completed, were it not for the fact that the same scenes are all essentially replicated in Hard To Die, making this scenario highly unlikely.

Whatever the reason for the sequence, it speaks volumes about who Wynorski is as a person and filmmaker that in his universe, this character turns out to be a stripper. Brock imagined an innocent girl driven to insanity by her horrific experience, while her Corman co-hort simply saw an opportunity to add another pair of tits into the mix.

I strongly suspect that out there is an alternative universe where I prefer his take on the material over hers, but only Uatu truly knows.

 

Okay, so that’s it for these two flicks. Next week I’ll discuss a more serious work in the Wynorski canon that the director has gone on record as stating that he personally hates.

Next Week

The Haunting of Morella

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The Wynorski Project - Part Four "Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans"

 

The Wynorski Project

Part Four

Deathstalker II

(1987)

Synopsis

Life gets exciting for Deathstalker, the womanizing "Prince of Thieves", when he rescues beautiful blond "seer" Reena from a trio of violent soldiers. After she convinces him that a vast reward awaits the man who stops the evil sorcerer Jarek from his reign of terror, they go on an adventure filled journey (Zombies! Female wrestlers! Amazons!), where our hero learns that Reena is a princess in exile, replaced by a mystical look-a-like who must consume men whole to survive. Blood is shed, breasts are bared, stuff explodes and there are happy endings for everyone who deserves one.


Before I begin, I want to say that the following might read more vitriolic than I intended. It is my belief that Deathstalker II is a bad movie, but the truth is that there's nothing wrong with being a bad movie. Bad movies make the world go round. And the fact is that as bad movies go, Deathstalker II isn't that bad. I just didn’t think it was very funny, which is somewhat problematic for a film that’s supposed to be a comedy.

But then this might be expected for a film that didn’t start out as a comedy. Originally written as a straightforward sequel to the original Deathstalker—a film best remembered today for featuring an early appearance by the late Lana Clarkson and the scene in which Barbi Benton’s see-through robe is rather redundantly torn off her bound body—Wynorski decided just as filming began in Argentina that the only way to save it from being a complete fiasco was to rewrite it on the fly with help from his leading man, Chopping Mall’s John Terlesky. Inspired by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and old Looney Tunes cartoons, they decided to turn it into a wacky road comedy.

 

This ad hoc approach to the screenplay is clearly evident onscreen. The script’s reliance on old jokes and routines borrowed from every comedy team filmed in the 30s and 40s is so blatantly predictable you find yourself mouthing the punch lines before the characters even have a chance to get to them. Though evidence of it could be found in all of the three films that preceded it, Deathstalker II is the first film to really establish Wynorski’s lack of an original voice. He’s the directorial equivalent of that guy at work who thinks he’s being clever by repeating jokes he’s heard in movies or on TV, seemingly oblivious to the fact that true wit requires you to come up with your own quips and observations, not merely parrot someone else’s.

But even more problematic to me is the ethical question Wynorski’s decision raises.

Now I realize “ethical” isn’t a word you hear used a lot in low-budget b-movie film reviews, but in the case of Deathstalker II I think it’s apt. As strange as it may sound to those of us who have seen the original Deathstalker, the very fact that its producers felt it was financially worthwhile to produce a sequel suggests that they believed there was a large group of folks who wanted to see that story continue. This being the case, Wynorski’s on-the-fly decision to turn the film into a comedy strikes me as an ultimately narcissistic move that—at best—represents a breach of trust.

Without a doubt had Wynorski filmed the original script without deviation the result would have been terrible, but it would have been consistently terrible with the first film and would have likely entertained the audience it had been produced for. The irony of Deathstalker II being that rather than save the film from descending into the laughable unintended camp of the Italian-made Ator films, Wynorski’s deliberately comic take only made the film terrible in a different way—one that undoubtedly ended up alienating the very audience who wanted to see it in the first place.

And here, I think, we get the first clue into the potentially unjustified negative feelings I had towards his work that I discussed in the introduction of this project. Despite his subject matter and apparent lack of pretension, Wynorski seems little different from those self-obsessed, self-proclaimed art house “geniuses” who make their films only for themselves and not their audiences. In his case though, his reasons for doing so isn’t to produce a work of “art”, but instead to make some money and hang out with pretty girls with big tits (which is, admittedly, a far more noble motive, but no less selfish and inconsiderate).

Truthfully, though, I’m somewhat dubious about Wynorski’s claim that the decision to turn the film into a farce was made at the last minute, if only because it’s very hard to imagine his chosen cast playing their roles in a non-comic capacity.

With his slim-build and jockish demeanor John Terlesky looks like he should be playing the bully in a teen comedy, not a medieval “Prince of Thieves” and it’s impossible to watch villainous John Lazar without thinking of his hilariously campy performance as Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As Sultana, Toni Naples looks good in a series of fetching outfits but is unable to do anything with the material she’s given. Of them all, it’s Maria Socas as the Amazon Queen who comes off the best, if only because she was the only actor already familiar with the genre (The Warrior and the Sorceress) and had the benefit of having all of her lines dubbed in by someone else.

That said, the film’s most memorable performance comes from Monique Gabrielle, a well-known 80s b-movie star who clocked more onscreen time naked than she ever did fully clothed. Deathstalker II features what is probably her most complex and difficult role, requiring her to take on the dual parts of the innocent exiled royal Reena and her evil, cannibalistic mystical doppleganger Evie. She’s not particularly convincing in either part, but this is more than made up for by her ability to carry off a series of nonexistent costumes that certainly leave a lasting impression on any heterosexual male who’s taken the time to watch the film. At the risk of blowing my already nebulous credibility, these costumes—and the moments she spends out of them—almost make Deathstalker II worth watching despite all of the objections I noted above.

Next Week

Not of This Earth

 

The Wynorski Project - Part Two "Chopping Mall"

The Wynorski Project

Part Two

 Chopping Mall

(1986)

 

 

Midway through my revisiting Chopping Mall specifically for this review I found myself slightly annoyed by how much I was enjoying it. Having started this project with the hope that it would go on to justify my prejudices against Wynorski, it didn’t seem right that I would end up liking his first two films as much as I did. Like The Lost Empire, Chopping Mall is a flawed film, but also a good example of what Wynorski could do before he seemingly stopped caring. Even better, it’s one of his few films where the humour is used to good affect, rather than to excuse the production’s obvious limitations. What I like most about it is that it’s a sincere film, making it one of the few he’s directed thus far,

It’s also the film that introduces many of the actors who would go on to become members of Wynorski’s unofficial repertory company, including Kelli Maroney, John Terlesky, Ace Mask, Lenny Juliano and—in an eye blink silent cameo as a bikini clad beauty queen—Toni Naples (see video below), all of whom would appear in many of his movies over the next decade.

 

Co-written by Steve Mitchell, Chopping Mall (originally released to theaters as Killbots) largely eschews the terrible puns and slapstick humour that defined The Lost Empire and instead replaces it with slightly more sophisticated in-jokes designed specifically to appeal to movie geeks.

For example, in the film’s first scene Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov appear as Paul and Mary Bland, the characters they played previously in Bartel’s Eating Raoul. Also in that same scene we see brief appearances by Lost Empire’s Angela Aames, Paul Coufos (who looks a lot better without the cheesy mustache) and Angus Scrimm (whose appearance is so brief I would have missed it if Wynorski hadn’t pointed it out in his commentary). Dick Miller also appears—once again—as an older version of Walter Paisley, the murderous beatnik artist from Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood, who apparently survived his original fate and went on to become a shopping mall janitor, Perhaps the funniest of all the film’s references comes when the embattled characters decide to head to Peckinpah Sporting Goods to load up on firearms and ammunition.

Shot in the same Californian shopping mall made famous by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which also featured Kelli Maroney in a supporting role), Chopping Mall is a fast-paced variation on the Spam-In-A-Cabin subgenre (in which a group of people find themselves trapped in a building with a murderous threat of some sort) in which the killers turn out to be malfunctioning security robots armed with unsuitably powerful laser weapons (see video below).

 

Coming in at just 73 minutes, minus the credits, the film succeeds largely because Wynorski doesn’t give us enough time to become bored and populates the film with characters who manage to avoid being the usual obnoxious assholes normally found in this kind of movie. That said, the film’s brevity and lack of complexity also work against it since we’re never given enough time or any reason to come to care about the poor folks trapped in the shopping mall with the killer robots, robbing the film of any potential emotional impact. There are at least three deaths in the film that in theory should affect us, but Wynorski isn’t capable of exploiting the drama inherent in these moments and as a result elicits shrugs rather than gasps or tears.

To its credit, the film shows no signs of the potential misogyny I expressed concern about in my previous review. Kelli Maroney’s character is given the typical final girl character arch, which I appreciate since that happens to be my favourite horror movie cliché. My only problem with her character’s significance in the film comes from Maroney herself. With her teased 80s blonde hairdo and chubby cheeks, its hard not to think of her as a human version of a certain popular Muppet character who was famously prone to violent rages and deeply in love with a lovable, if slightly milquetoast frog emcee. Perhaps I would feel differently if the film didn’t also feature Karrie Emerson, an extremely attractive brunette (see video below), who retired from acting not long after appearing in Chopping Mall and another film in which her character should have lived to the end, but didn’t—the astonishingly terrible Evils of the Night.

 

If it seems like I’m not saying a lot here, it’s because there’s really not enough meat on Chopping Mall’s bones to deconstruct. It is what it is and by that standard it’s quite fun and a definite check in Jim Wynorski’s win column, which is good, because I don’t think it will be very long before the other column starts filling right up.

´╗┐Next Week

Big Bad Mama II