Spinning Discs: Kentucky Fried Movies
This time we salute the spirit of ’76–not red, white, and blue, but sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A 70s vibe (1970’s vibe, that is) predominates.
Out this week on Blu-ray is The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), a reminder, after the disaster of Movie 43, that good sketch comedy can be found on the big screen. True, it may be one of the few truly noteworthy examples of its kind, along with 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (also due on Blu this year) or KFM‘s spottier, starrier followup, 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon, but still. I laughed my teenage ass off at it on Cinemax at least 100 times back in the day (thrilled at the nudie bits, too, while hoping that Mom wouldn’t come into the TV room) and its R-rated spoofery of movie trailers and cine-culture ephemera like Sensurround holds up pretty well. The bits that don’t work (the long-ish sketch about the dead, for example) didn’t work then, either, and the ones that do (the centerpiece chopsocky vignette, “A Fistful of Yen”) still connect, and the decidedly un-PC humor comes at you in a quick, easy-to-take barrage. It’s the brief, one-joke, faux trailers that have me on the floor, like “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” and “Cleopatra Schwartz,” the unlikely pairing of blaxploitation heroine and rabbi (“She…was six feet of towering black dynamite! He…lit the Sabbath candles!”)
While there are a few famous faces before the camera (Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, and Donald Sutherland “as the clumsy waiter”), it’s director John Landis (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and co-writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (Airplane!) who got the biggest career boosts when tickets to Kentucky Fried Movie sold by the bucketful, and they and producer Robert K. Weiss participate in a lively commentary track (“five Jews sitting on a couch!”) drawn from a prior DVD. The Zuckers have their say via a feature-length conversation in an interview prepared for the Arrow UK DVD of the film, and the original theatrical trailer is also offered. The Arrow disc has a few more extras but if you haven’t gone region- or zone-free in your disc purchasing (what’s stopping you?) and would appreciate the modest bump in image quality Blu-ray offers such a proudly shoestring enterprise, this is the Fried food for you.
Shout Factory, which has released The Kentucky Fried Movie, has issued or reissued several cult-ish gems recently, notably Ridley Scott’s debut, The Duellists, on Blu-ray, and the Spalding Gray favorite Swimming to Cambodia on DVD. Electra Glide in Blue (1973) is less noted, but notable, as a cop-noir spin, sort of, on Easy Rider. If conservative mores and free-and-easy livin’ seem unpalatable when mixed, well, they are; still, there are good reasons to check out this very handsome Blu-ray debut. The one-and-done film directed by Chicago producer James William Guercio spotlights a touching performance by Robert Blake as an Arizona motorcycle cop who, when assigned to homicide to aid a murder investigation, falls in with the hippies whom his fellow cops loathe, with cross-cultural reverberations. “Did you know that loneliness will kill you deader than a .357 Magnum?,” Blake asks at one point, with the absolute conviction of someone on a downhill spiral. Made in homage to John Ford (who probably wouldn’t have liked the hippies, either), the film was exquisitely, and expensively, shot by Conrad Hall, the DP of Blake’s best-known feature, In Cold Blood–Guercio forfeited his own salary to pay for Hall’s acumen on his low-budget shoot, and he got it in spades. With noir icon Elisha Cook, appearances by Chicago band members and a larger, drug dealer role for Peter Cetera, and a look fast bit by Nick Nolte. Retained from a prior DVD as Shout continues to mine the majors for their cast offs and curiosities are a sparse Guercio commentary and a more expansive introduction.
What do I think of when I think of the 70s? Pop Rocks. The Osmonds. My former hair. And, disaster movies. I saw them all, including the aptly named genre swan song When Time Ran Out… (1980)…and watched as their millennial resurgence, driven by CGI, brought us twisters, volcanoes, asteroids, and a poor remake, 2006’s Poseidon.The one untouchable of the bunch is 1974’s The Towering Inferno, which, even in an era top-heavy with 9/11 disaster porn, is too close to the bone for a redo. Here, anyway–from Korea comes The Tower, which reboots the concept for the digital age, taking us into the 108-story Tower Sky, a twinned luxury building replete with everything except the basics to survive a Christmas Eve helicopter crash that turns upper-deck partygoers into potential barbecue. With episodic, 70s-style plotting and characterizations and decent effects, particularly some lulus on a scary sky bridge, it’s a fun throwback to a simpler time in our moviegoing, before everything became a “metaphor.” Director Kim Ji-hoon, who made Tidal Wave (2009), which you can catch on Netflix Instant, is clearly the Roland Emmerich of Asia.
James Franco hasn’t appeared in a movie in a long time–say, two weeks? But Spring Breakers is back on Blu-ray, so you can catch up with his bonkers performance as “Alien,” which is easily the highlight of Harmony Korine’s fever dream of a flick. Whatever it is, you can hear Korine laughing his way to the bank, as it grossed a formidable $32 million worldwide, perplexing mainstream and arthouse audiences alike in the way of the “counterculture” movies that cropped up after Easy Rider‘s success in 1969. I’m not sure the disc provides much in the way of clarification, yet it is a sexy beast of a transfer, with a good making-of, a Korine commentary plus his thoughts on the score, deleted scenes and outtakes, and Vice-produced featurettes about real life spring break rites. “Look at my sheeyit! I got… I got Blu-rays!”
What kind of director wears a mask on set, and refuses to reveal his first and last name? As tumbleweeds blow around theaters showing The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski wishes it were he. “Makinov,” however, went incognito after a near-death experience, and his idea of therapy, the horror film Come Out and Play, will likely be a near-death experience for parents and anyone sensitive to violence involving children. These stay-at-home days, that would be me, and yet like the film on which it’s fairly faithfully based, 1976’s Spain-made Who Can Kill a Child?, it’s reasonably discreet concerning underage bloodletting. The potential is certainly there, as an expectant couple (Ebon-Moss Bachrach and Vinessa Shaw) vacationing in Mexico come across a picturesque island, inhabited almost entirely by kids–kids who have inexplicably murdered their elders and are out for new blood. A variant on The Birds, it’s stealthily suspenseful rather than slash-and-bash, though when it comes down to decide who can kill a child, have your hands close to your eyes–and remember that the little ones surely had a ball during filming. Extras include a making of, deleted scenes, and cast interviews. Come out and see us some time, Makinov.
There are several brother filmmaking teams, and now we have a sister act–Jen and Sylvia Soska, who have made American Mary. Romantic comedy? Ha. The 30-year-old Canadian twins, makers of that family favorite Dead Hooker in a Trunk (they have those in Canada?), up the ante with an even more outrageous chiller. Medical student Mary (Katharine Isabelle, of the fine Ginger Snaps werewolf films) finds work on the strip club scene performing body modifications, including quite a number on the doctor who rapes her; things get very weird as she perfects her craft, which is presented without scorn or judgment. Indeed this is a very even-handed film, wild, repulsive perhaps, but also controlled and compassionate, and strongly anchored by Isabelle. Can horror co-exist with feminism? Expect the Soskas, known as “The Twisted Twins,” to keep exploring that question, and hear from them in the making-of extra and commentary track, which also features Isabelle and co-star Tristan Risk, whose character has been altered to resemble–Betty Boop.
Let us conclude by returning to the 70s with neglected auteur works available manufactured-on-demand from the invaluable Warner Archive. After the one-two punch of The French Connection (1971) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), character actor Gene Hackman emerged as a major star, but he wouldn’t enjoy drawing power again until 1978’s Superman: The Movie. He made some excellent movies, notably the neo-noirs The Conversation (1974) and Night Moves (1975), and the underrated French Connection II (1975)–plus some outright flops, like Lucky Lady (1975), The Domino Principle (1977), and 1977’s March or Die (“Audiences marched into the theater, and died,” he recounted.). Zandy’s Bride (1974) is a representative failure, co-starring Liv Ullmann and directed by Jan Troell, whose acclaimed two-part saga with Ullmann and Max von Sydow, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), has been mysteriously out of circulation for decades. No one really missed Zandy’s Bride, a sluggish Western romance, with Hackman as a gruff, flailing rancher in Big Sur and Ullmann as his mail-order bride, who civilizes him after mistreatment and travail. Written by Marc Norman, it’s low on exciting incident (even a grizzly attack is sleepy), and high on authentic atmosphere; a reverse dynamic might have helped. That said the stress on realism is at least interesting, and the actors, including Eileen Heckart, the late Susan Tyrrell (as a Latina rival to Ullmann), and Harry Dean Stanton, faultless. The trailer included on the disc pretty much encapsulates the whole movie and likely dissuaded audiences; perhaps home viewers in this blighted era for Westerns will be more receptive.
With defections and asylum in the news and cerebral espionage thrillers like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Homeland hits on TV and at the movies, now is the perfect time for The Human Factor, which Tom Stoppard adapted from a Graham Greene novel in 1979. Its legendary director, Otto Preminger, of Laura (1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and other provocative classics, couldn’t buy critical or audience favor after the mid-60s, and this was his final film after one of the saddest declines in movie history. While held in slightly higher regard than busts like Skidoo (1968) and Rosebud (1975), it didn’t attract much interest, either, save from a few die hard auteurists. Yet The Human Factor is ripe for rediscovery, and it was a surprise to see it looking so well on DVD-R, after seeing a French-subtitled print at a rare screening held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011.
The Human Factor concerns a leak discovered in Russia, one that rouses the British Secret Service from its slumber. (The mandarins of the agency are played, impeccably, by Robert Morley and John Gielgud, with Richard Attenborough rising in the ranks as a security officer.) Suspicion falls on a footloose bachelor, Davis (Derek Jacobi), and on Castle (Nicol Williamson), who eight years earlier confounded the government by marrying a South African (Iman, whose inexperience in her debut takes some getting used to) and spiriting her away from its apartheid regime. Arrangements are made to close the leak, permanently, but is the wrong man under suspicion? The mystery (which isn’t much of a mystery to us) exposes a subculture of bureaucratic rot, casual racism, and monstrous calculation, and comes to a quietly devastating conclusion. The image that Saul Bass chose for the last of his famous Preminger posters could not be more apt, for the film and for the filmmaker who waited in vain for someone to pick up the phone in his waning years. A gem.
Trivia question: What’s the connection between Zandy’s Bride and The Human Factor? (Answer below in the comments section.)