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Final Curtain: The Last of Ed Wood

No matter how poor the special effects at this fest, they can’t be worse than the auteur it honors, a director who believed a couple of pie plates stapled together might resemble a UFO. DMTheatrics director Frank Cwiklik presents five theatrical adaptations of Ed Wood’s cinematic abominations.

June 20-July 1, 2012

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Plan Nine From Outer Space Lands at the Brick

In the grand tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Brick Theater’s Plan Nine From Outer Space (co-presented by DM Theatrics) revels in the fact that bad science-fiction flicks, ridiculous dialogue, men in demi-drag, and exuberant song-and-dance numbers are rather appealing in combination. (And, no, Freud, I’d rather not know why.)

Conceived and directed by Frank Cwiklik, Plan Nine is a fun, though occasionally long-winded, parody of director Ed Wood’s infamously awful 1958 sci-fi film of the same name, in which aliens visit Earth and raise a few zombies, terrifying the polis and befuddling the cops.

Bringing contagious enthusiasm onto an intimate stage, Plan Nine‘s cast campily re-enacts the film, mixing Wood’s original dialogue with some riffing of their own. The production budget is thin and the set is bare, but Cwiklik makes good use of several screens on which video clips play. 

Plan Nine is at its best when cast members dance their hearts out to rock anthems, and at its worst when scenes grow overlong and baggy. The show starts at 10 p.m. and capitalizes on inside sci-fi jokes, so it’s not for everyone. But it’s definitely an upbeat offering for fans of the late-night double-feature picture show.

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Offshore Isn’t Potent Enough to Be a Lukewarm-Button Movie

As if Office Space were remade by a TV hack who can’t tell a joke,
scored by an infomercial composer, and both produced and cast by the
ghost of Ed Wood, Michigan-based filmmaker Diane Cheklich’s insipid,
cheapjack dramedy—about a flagging company’s decision to
outsource—isn’t potent enough to even be called a lukewarm-button
movie. When the CEO of Fairfax Furniture (Marty Bufalini) determines
that costs must be cut to save his own ass, he hands over his call
center to an Indian start-up called Voxx, which then flies three
employees out to Detroit so they can familiarize themselves with the
products. Trained by the pissed-off workers they’re about to replace,
the trio experiences dramatic tension of a junior-high cafeteria
caliber, as the Americans gently sabotage (prank calls!), humiliate
(“Bring us coffee!”), and make xenophobic retorts like “But we’re
American, Pedro.” Cheklich and her co-writers seem as if they’re
consciously not taking sides on such a complex issue, but that only
means both cultures are depicted as myopic caricatures, and . . .
[With apologies, the Voice has outsourced the rest of this
review to Mumbai]
. . . it’s a good movie, and I like all the time.

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Urban Death

Zombie Joe is the real thing: a genuine outsider artist with an aesthetic so single-minded it approaches madness. In Urban Death, an hour-long anthology of wordless terror tableaux, this North Hollywood–based writer-director carves a gory path somewhere between visionary theater and exploitation, between Richard Foreman and Ed Wood.

Opening with an Abu Ghraib–like pile of bodies that slowly quakes up into staring, stalking zombie life, Urban Death treats us to a nightmare clown, erotic asphyxiation, flashlight-lit creepy-crawlies, and assorted excisions and suppurations. Joe’s ensemble of 10 varies widely in polish but not in commitment—their eyes bugging over thick makeup, they all look like graduates of the George Romero school of commedia dell’arte.

Though the pace and shape of the evening often wavers, Zombie Joe has mastered one thing above all: the unique power of theatrical darkness. Many of these vignettes last less than a minute before they’re swallowed up by chillingly complete blackouts, and the resulting blackness seems to discolor even the show’s most garishly lit images. That sense of encroaching, inescapable gloom is finally the scariest thing about Urban Death. It may not be deathless art, but there’s an unmistakable, undead pulse in Zombie Joe’s black-box theatrics.

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The Mother of Tears: Dario Argento Clowns Himself

A topsy-turvy Escherland exists where Dario Argento’s The Mother of Tears is considered a twisted classic, and it is a magical place. Up is down, sour is sweet, sewer rat tastes like pumpkin pie, and Hitchcock never made a more ripping yarn than Jamaica Inn. A once-great director’s near-worst work passes through its funhouse plumbing and emerges from the crapper as intentional mischief: self-sabotage explained away as mad genius.

Treating The Mother of Tears as intentional self-parody is the only way to get much enjoyment out of what should have been a triumph: the long-awaited, long-deferred climax to Argento’s “Three Mothers” series, begun in 1977 with Suspiria and followed in 1980 by Inferno. And indeed, taken as a stand-alone entity, The Mother of Tears is a high-camp hoot—a nut-brain fiasco so awe-inspiringly awful that somewhere in the great beyond, Ed Wood raises his maggoty fist in solidarity.

But for people who revere the horror maestro’s vital work—roughly the period between his debut, 1970’s proto–De Palma giallo The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, and his 1990 segment of the anthology film Two Evil Eyes—it’s painful to watch the Hieronymus Bosch of ’70s horror sink this low. The man who made Suspiria and Inferno is a badass: a collaborator and aesthetic comrade of Leone and Bertolucci, an orchestrator of operatic set pieces that abide their own nightmare logic, gliding into beyond-reason realms on camera moves of voluptuous dread. The man who made The Mother of Tears 27 years later can’t even hurl a baby from a bridge without the Fisher-Price doll bonking to pieces on the way down.

The setup is suitably apocalyptic: A backhoe uncovers an ancient Roman crypt containing three totems, the statues of the all-powerful witches known as the Three Mothers. I’m not sure how or why—perhaps by opening the box, perhaps by activating Plan 10 from Outer Space—but the discovery triggers the grisly return of the Third Mother, Mater Lachrymarum.

This sepulchral pole-dancer, who snacks on tears and presides over a subterranean Plato’s Retreat of ornate depravities—anybody care to explain the woman eating a length of Laffy Taffy out of someone’s ass?—flexes her demonic might in the first of the movie’s splattery showpieces: an attack on a museum staffer who has her teeth bashed out with a pestle before she’s eviscerated by homunculi and hanged with her own guts—while a screeching monkey shrieks its encouragement. The eyewitness, Sarah Mandy, played by an unfortunately restrained Asia Argento, will later discuss this event with notable understatement: “Something strange happened to me tonight.”

Asia Argento has bloomed into one of the movies’ most carnal, volatile, and exciting presences (and a hugely promising director to boot), but this is the most thankless of her “Thank you dad, may I have another?” roles. Even so, she’s the Sarah Bernhardt of a cast that finds no middle ground between silent-movie hysteria and cop-show catatonia. The acting was weak in Dario Argento’s early successes, sure. But with his bravura style and flamboyant art direction to set the mood, the ventriloquist-dummy dubbing somehow suited the otherworldliness of his milieu. Without Argento’s once-trademark elegance, all that’s left is poorly staged, protracted sadism interrupted by expository narcolepsy and unintended horselaughs.

The sad truth is that The Mother of Tears has all the ingredients for a roaring comeback: the return of Suspiria alumni Daria Nicolodi (Asia’s mom) and Udo Kier as well as composer Claudio Simonetti; gory killings aplenty, from throat slashings and face smashings to a nonconsensual episiotomy; a script that, at least in outline, advances intriguing themes of maternal yearning and clashing systems of religious and secular belief. Yet the movie uses them in ways demonstrably inferior to the earlier films. Frederic Fasano’s flat camerawork lacks the sumptuous palette and sinuous movement that Luciano Tovoli brought to Suspiria and Tenebre; the ah-hoo-hee-hee-HA-HA score has none of Suspiria‘s nerve-jangling dissonance.

Is it unfair to measure The Mother of Tears by the standards of Argento’s best work? Anything else would be patronizing and dishonest. One of the mysteries of horror is that the thinnest of lines—style—distinguishes the genre’s best from its worst. The Mother of Tears has all the elements that Maitland McDonough enumerated in her Argento study Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, but without the directorial panache that made anyone care in the first place.

Those who make a case for The Mother of Tears as an elaborate jape—most of whom attended its famously celebratory Toronto premiere, where the entire audience sang the director “Happy Birthday”—get the most support from the movie’s deranged final third. It starts with a hilarious montage of cackling, clawing supermodel witches converging on Rome (via airline stock footage) like a Transylvanian Sex and the City convention; it ends with Asia crawling through an excremental downpour toward a closing-shot curtain call, where she collapses in gales of cathartic laughter. If you believe someone of Dario Argento’s proven talent would make a movie so deliberately sucky, feel free to join in.

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Film

A spoofy pastiche of grade-Z 1950s and ’60s horror/sci-fi fare, this MiniDV cheapie credibly replicates the shabby earnestness and outré charm—and tedium. Writer-director Larry Blamire, who also plays a charisma-challenged scientist, generally avoids snarky derision, and his grasp of schlock-genre subtleties is genuinely affectionate. Nevertheless, a po-faced simulacrum of Plan 9 From Outer Space is nobody’s idea of a good time, so The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is wisely played for laughs. It frequently scores; Blamire nails Ed Wood’s trademark syntactical acrobatics, and a sublimely awkward set piece featuring masquerading aliens (Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell) recalls the dinner scene in Eraserhead drained of queasy dread. Skeleton may be 100 percent cult-in-a-can, but aficionados should feel sated. All others are advised to bring copious amounts of controlled substances.

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Thinking Outside The Cage: Sound With and Against Image

One would naturally look to film to enshrine a world-class 20th-century thinker as influential as composer John Cage. Yet many attempts to have Cage explain or demonstrate his work on camera appear contrived, and reduce him to a “far out” signifier—Dick Fontaine’s Sound (1967), for instance, finds Cage good-naturedly but somewhat artificially reciting questions about sound (intercut with footage of a sweaty club show by reed player Rahsaan Roland Kirk). Cage’s music is more often talked about than listened to—and doesn’t exactly beg for a visual counterpart. Moreover, Cage himself was no fan of film. “The images don’t interest me any more than the sound,” he wrote in 1956. “Nor am I interested in the artistic arrangement of sound to go with or against the images.”

Nevertheless, Anthology Film Archives has managed to round up over two dozen intersections of Cage, cinema, video, and television. In the festival’s opener, From Zero (1995), comprising four shorts, director Frank Scheffer bravely tries to adapt Cage’s aleatory techniques to film. 19 Questions is a chance-determined interview with Cage where he plays beat-the-clock by giving himself a strict number of seconds to discuss everything from Zen to Octavio Paz—it’s a rather charming portrait, with Cage chuckling at his own aphorisms. The chance-operation editing and filming of a performance of the Cage piece Fourteen is probably no more or less interesting than straight footage would be, but certainly more self-conscious; Ed Wood probably created a better, unintentional homage to Cage in the visual non sequiturs of Glen or Glenda. Paying Attention grows quickly tiresome in its distortion of image and sound in another interview with Cage, while Overpopulation and Art‘s random landscape shots again neither add nor subtract from the two Cage pieces on the soundtrack. Indeed, the best audio-visual answer to Cage’s music in the series is a 1960 chance meeting between Cage (as a contestant) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (as a panelist) on the long-forgotten game show I’ve Got a Secret.

More attractive are the documentaries about the works themselves. A little-seen gem is Jackie Raynal’s 1963 film of a Merce Cunningham/Cage performance in Paris, shot on stolen film stock with the Maysles brothers’ equipment. Variations V (1965-66) presents another Cunningham/Cage performance that incorporates films by Stan Vanderbeek, video by Nam June Paik, gizmos by Robert Moog, and rare appearances by classic new-music heroes David Tudor, James Tenney, and Gordon Mumma—a vital document of a first-generation Happening in full flower. HPSCHD shows an early ’90s restaging of another Happening, rendered poignant by Cage’s absence from the festivities but also illustrating how his ideas and pieces have taken on a life of their own.


Alan Licht performs in a live concert of John Cage music at Anthology on January 22.

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Oh No, There Goes Tokyo: Science-Fiction Punks Rock Japan

Sci-fi punks like Tokyo’s Guitar Wolf and Polysics know that for a generation of Japanese youth hopped up on popcorn and Pocky flavor sticks, gore and camp are always just a commercial away. And as the kids know, running for one’s life isn’t as important as what’s playing on the iPod when doing so.

Tokyo’s legendary punkabilly trio Guitar Wolf believe that red-blooded rock and roll can save the planet. In Wild Zero, their camp horror movie released in 2000, wannabe rocker Ace rescues the band from a backstage brawl. Afterward they help him save Tokyo from a pack of voracious undead souls (zombified by who? Puffy Amiyumi?).

Guitar Wolf’s current UFO Romantics could be Ed Wood’s bondage fantasy: black leather and guitar solos greased like the group’s hairdos. “Fire Ball Red” starts it up, with Seiji (a/k/a Guitarwolf)’s instrument signaling like an emergency alarm, while his bandmates Toru (Drumwolf) and Billy (Basswolf) ride the chorus like a stolen vehicle. Then “After School Thunder” ‘s group chorus cracks the concrete. Toru’s bass drum navigates “Grion Midnite” with flashlight accuracy, while Seiji and Billy fall all over one another in the dark. “UFO Romantics” is clearly the troupe’s rallying call: three ringing power chords channeling space invaders, sounding like “Baba O’Riley” with subtitles.

On the other side of town, Polysics just want to outlast pop’s next big trend. They’re willing to fight, though—one Roland MV-8000 at a time. Donning radiation suits to survive apocalyptic rifts, the quartet plays hyper-kinetic new wave owing equally to Devo, XTC, and H.G. Wells. “Making Sense,” from their latest, Neu, sounds like Pete Shelley poring over Boy Scout survival manuals. A throbbing electro-pulse trips under vocalist Hiroyuki Hayashi as keyboards signal his direction. Though synth and vocoder on “Each Life Each End” and “X-Rays” are as synthetic as Teflon, Polysics thrash like a shuttle upon re-entry. They also cover Kiss’s plaster-casting song. If kitsch were a cinema gold standard, names of post-apocalyptic pop stars would line Tokyo’s streets, only to ripple beneath feet of a prosthetic Godzilla.

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I Lost It at the Movies

Along with airplanes and shopping malls, movie theaters are among the most common places for people to have panic attacks. One can imagine that this would come as no surprise to Voice film critic Michael Atkinson, whose collection of essays, Ghosts in the Machine, describes an experience of moviegoing that is unnervingly intimate, destabilizing, and terrifying. “Sometimes we are made to feel that we’re choking on our own hearts,” writes Atkinson, “frozen on the dark brink of complete bedlam, and it’s that taste of burnt nerves and raw pleasure that is one of movies’ primal selves.”

The topics here range from rock biopics to Planet of the Apes to the career of Ousmane Sembene. Regardless of the subject matter, Atkinson is always alive to the anxiety of moviewatching: the dark theater, the spectral images, the agitation that movie narratives ritualistically provoke and quell. His interests run toward the gothic. He weighs the legacy of Ed Wood (“a visionary . . . whose work scans like a clubfooted parody of dementia praecox”), writes a paean to Heavenly Creatures director Peter Jackson, and traces the literary and cinematic heritage of the Mitteleuropa-flavored animation of the Brothers Quay. But he’s just as comfortable talking about blockbusters or early silents, rhapsodizing Jean Harlow’s blondness or questioning why we never actually see Hollywood characters working. Atkinson gives the impression of having seen every movie ever made at least twice. If the essays sometimes lapse into enthusiastic catalogs of film-historical minutiae, you’re inclined to forgive him—it’s the price for the broad perspective and exhaustive scholarship that he offers. And his voice never falls into reference-library detachment. The fevered excess of Atkinson’s favorite genres seems to infect his prose.

Writing about a recent crop of road movies, he hopes that “once again the image of a faded luxury model from yesteryear soaring through the heat ripples and fog and endless night of a flat turnpike or overgrown backstreet, dashed hopes trailing behind it like so much exhaust, will conjure not just the tired postmod clichés of a hyperactive pop consciousness, but the mysterious, detrital lyricism of human hunger and loneliness.” If he’s sentimental, it’s for the best reasons. Movies matter; they have a hold over us that we don’t fully understand. Atkinson has made it his business to explain, or at least appreciate, their exquisitely terrifying power.