B-Movie Cult Classics Unearthed Watching Late-Night HBO in College (pt. 1)

Two recent untimely deaths–those of 43-year-old actress Amanda Peterson and 61-year-old ex-pro-grappler/actor Roddy Piper (the former not entirely unexpected, the latter of natural causes)–got me thinking about the movies that made them famous*, Peterson acting** in 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love (co-starring the nerd who would one day grow up to be auto-racing enthusiast Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey) and Piper heading up** 1988’s They Live, a low-budget, John Carpenter-directed curiosity featuring, among other things, alien invasion, mind control via subliminal messaging, a pair of sunglasses with mysterious powers and, most intriguingly, the mother of all fistfights, a five-and-a-half-minute beatdown between Piper and his co-star, the dulcet-voiced Keith David.

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[*The use of the word “famous” being relative, of course, not unlike someone (most likely a blood relation) insisting The Conflicted Film Snob is “a brilliantly written blog.”/**Please refer to the aforementioned relativity of “famous”]

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself: Man, I haven’t heard of either of those flicks, though I do know that one Beatles’ song. (begins to hum).

Don’t fret. Considering both movie flopped theatrically, your ignorance is understandable. That is, unless you attended college (as The Conflicted Film Snob did) in the late 1980s, that long-ago time in which a goodly number of co-eds suffered from chronic, explosive hair diarrhea, guys pegged their jeans without an ounce of irony and HBO could be syphoned from a utility pole if one had a roommate dumb enough to risk immolation by climbing said pole to activate the service…

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Yes, the late 1980s yielded quite a number of theatrical mediocrities that eventually achieved something of a cult status via HBO, which, in a brilliant programming move, ran many of these movies ad nauseum late at night, that magical hour in which college kids, after a long night spent drinking studying at the library, gathered together on their stadium-seating couches and flipped on the tube…

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Do college kids still do this nowadays? Communally watch TV? Or do they just lay on their beds and stare at their iPhones? I confess to knowing little about today’s college experience. Do kids even attend by themselves? Or do their parents take an apartment on campus to keep a watchful eye, make sure precious is tucked into bed at a reasonable hour, and gets a fair shake in terms of grading curves and participation trophies, concerns similar to those of Douglas MacArthur‘s mother, Pinky, who moved with her young cadet to West Point in 1899 to make sure his skivvies were clean:

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Anyway, back when The Conflicted Film Snob made his indelible mark on higher education, we’d watch late-night cable. And here are some of my favorite discoveries, complete with a highly technical rating scale after each write-up:

The Hidden (1987, dir. Jack Sholder)

What’s there not to like when a flick opens in medias res with a bunch of police cruisers chasing after a bank robber driving a speeding Ferrari who, in short order, blows through a pane of glass oh-so-gingerly being carried from a glass delivery truck (the oldest sight gag in the book!), hits an old guy in a wheelchair (mercy kill!) and then tries to run a gauntlet of shotgun-welding cops.

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Seems the Ferrari-driving, bank-robbing murderer, a heretofore mild-mannered husband and father, has been co-opted by a thrill-seeking alien with a soft spot for heavy metal music and high-performance sports cars. And if the human host dies, as does the Ferrari-driving-bank-robbing-murderer-mild-mannered-husband-and-father in a hospital room not long after the unsucessful gauntlet run? Well, the slug-like alien simply moves on to another host, rather yuckily it should be noted, via an extraterrestrial form of mouth-to-mouth, first to a guy dying of heart failure in an adjoining hospital bed (who proceeds to steal another sports car, blast heavy metal via a boombox and kill anyone who gives him crap before succumbing to his heart condition)…

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…then on to a stripper (who proceeds to kick ass before getting shot by cops and jumping to her death through a neon billboard)…

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…then on to a dog…and then on to the dog’s owner, a police lieutenant (who proceeds to shoot up a police station before being shot to death himself)….and then on to another cop (who proceeds to shoot lots of people)…before finally ending up in Senator Holt, who just happens to be a front-running Presidential candidate. All this and more (!) while being pursued by our heroes, police detective Thomas Beck (Michael “Flashdance” Nouri) and his strange new partner-with-a-secret, Agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle “Twin Peaks/Showgirls” MacLachlan).

Flashdance v. Showgirls Death-Match?

Remember how earlier I guessed that you might be saying to yourself, Man, I never heard of those flicks? when referencing Can’t Buy Me Love and They Live? Well, if I hazard a second guess, I suspect your thoughts have moved on to something more along the lines of, This Film Snob dude really sucks if he thinks the flick he just described isn’t anything but a steaming pile of dung.

But the fact is, dear reader, that you are wrong. Because The Hidden is a great little low-budget sci-fi thriller. Not only is it funny, full of propulsive action, a little sad at points and well-acted in a deadpanny sort of way, it’s also just plain fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Cult-o-Meter™ (10-pt. scale)

  • 7.5/10 (General Quality Rating)
  • 10/10 (Enhanced Rating When Viewed Post-Midnight and just back from 25¢ Beer Nite)

The Wraith (1986, dir., Mike Marvin)

Back in 1986, this well before revealing to the world that he had tiger’s blood running through his veins, Charlie Sheen made a splash in two films, Platoon, which famously chronicled the horrors of mechanized war, and The Wraith, which cast its unflinching gaze upon no less an abomination, a farmer-tanned Sheen drifting about an Arizona swim hole on a floating mattress:

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Warning: Could induce PTSD

It’s been said that America loves a good comeback, that we’re only too happy to grant a second chance–look no further than Marv Albert if you need convincing. Thankfully, the kind of largesse extended to our favorite white-panty-and-garter-belt-wearing sportscaster wasn’t offered to director Mike Marvin, helmer of this creative and commercial travesty. Not that I wish the man ill; it’s just, cinema is better off with him working the fry line at Wendy’s rather than creating moving images.

Despite The Wraith being a poorly written, acted and directed clunker, it isn’t without certain moronic charms, chief among them Clint Howard (Ron’s brother) playing a character named “Rughead”…

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Randy Quaid chewing scenery as a frustrated sheriff, this performance before he, as the British like to say, took leave of his senses…

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Sheen’s sweet 80s hairdo…

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…the aforementioned floaty mattress scene with Sheen and Sherilyn “Soon-to-Star-in-David-Lynch’s-Twin Peaks” Fenn

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…cheesy backlit shots like these…

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…and, most critically, a supporting cast rich with characters nicknamed Minty, Oggie, Gutterboy and Skank who look like this:

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So what’s the movie about, you ask? Wikipedia’s write-up provides more than enough plot:

“The Wraith tells the story of a murdered Arizona teen who mysteriously returns from the dead as an all-powerful drag racing wraith intent on taking revenge on a gang of car thieves and their psychotic leader, who murdered the teen so the leader could then exert emotional control over the dead teen’s girlfriend using intimidation.”

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So there you have it: Sheen. Bad 80s hair. Drag racing. Clint Howard. Grade Z visual effects. Sign me up!

Cult-o-Meter™ (10-pt. scale)

  • 0.5/10 (General Quality Rating)
  • 11/10 (Enhanced Rating When Viewed Post-Midnight and just back from 25¢ Beer Nite)

Extreme Prejudice (1987, dir., Walter Hill)

Know what a squib is? No? Well, I can pretty much promise that you’ve seen one in action. Because a squib is that little packet of fake blood backed with a small explosive charge that’s concealed under an actor’s clothes and explodes to simulate a gunshot impact and aftermath.

Director Walter Hill is big on squibs, overseeing the detonation of hundreds, if not thousands, throughout his long career, an oeuvre that includes such films as The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, Red Heat, Johnny Handsome and Geronimo: An American Legend.

That said, they’re mere child’s play compared to Extreme Prejudice, Hill’s 1987 pièce de résistance in terms of exploding blood packets. To give you an idea, check out this hilarious compilation of kills from the movie, courtesy some creative soul (read: someone with too much time on his hands) who posted it on YouTube: 

But Extreme Prejudice isn’t just about gratuitous fake bloodletting; the movie tackles another of Hill’s very favorite themes, machismo. As a matter of fact, the flick is so chockfull of that uniquely masculine pride that simply writing about it will enable me to skip today’s testosterone replacement therapy. Heck, we’re not but 10 minutes into the flick when antagonist Powers Booth, one of modern cinema’s great scene-chewing tough guys, takes a helpless scorpion in hand, allows it to traipse about his palm for a bit before crushing it with his steely fingers.

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Later he shoots a man just for snoring–wait…that’s not right…I’m mixing up Extreme Prejudice with that commercial for Time-Life Books The Old West Series:

However, Booth’s character, Cash Bailey, does shoot a guy in cold blood in some south-of-the-border dive bar towards the end of the movie not because the guy was snoring but rather to demonstrate his–Bailey’s–toughness and impunity. Lest the patrons be traumatized by the sight, though, he quickly (and thoughtfully) lightens the mood with a call for some dancing (“Get some music going! The hell is going on here? Get some music going or I’ll shoot the damn band and I want it sweet, goddammit!”)

In terms of rampant machismo, our antagonist has nothing on the movie’s protagonist, Nick Nolte, yet another of modern cinema’s great scene-chewing tough guys. Playing gruff, tough-as-nails Texas Ranger Jack Benteen, Nolte wears his hat so low on his melon that one can barely make out his nostrils:

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Benteen is a man of few words, the kind of guy who prefers to size up his prey with glares rather than chit-chat. Here’s a typical exchange between Jack and his partner, the equally adverse-to-suffering-fools Hank Pearson (Rip Torn):

Sheriff Hank: “Morning.” 

Benteen: [growls] “What’s good about it?”

Sheriff Hank: “Well hell, I said ‘morning.’ I didn’t say ‘good morning.'” 

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Whoo-wee, is that no-nonsense or what!

In terms of plot, Extreme Prejudice goes something like this:

Jack and Cash are old friends. Jack is a Ranger, Cash a drug dealer in Mexico. Although their bond runs deep, they both realize their friendship is at an impasse. Conflict looms. Threats are made. Boothe gets to say cool stuff like, “You know, Jack. I got a feeling the next time we run into each other, we gonna have a killin’. Just a feeling.” And Nolte gets to say cool stuff like, “I don’t give up my gun without somebody gettin’ hurt.” And Rip Torn gets to say cool stuff like, “Funny, ain’t it, how it comes around. Right way’s the hardest, wrong way’s the easiest. Rule of nature, like water seeks the path of least resistance. So you get crooked rivers, crooked men.” Guns are eventually fired. Innocent blood, including that of the aforementioned scorpion, is shed. The stakes rise further with a subplot involving ex-soldiers ostensibly hired to bring down Cash. Double-crosses ensue. More squibs detonate. A partner is tragically killed. A Mariachi band is coerced into playing something “sweet, goddammit!” Our pro- and antagonists square off in a duel. Who will be wearing the hidden squibs?

In case there wasn’t enough toughness oozing from the pores of his primary cast, director Hill wisely stocked his supporting players with recognizable tough guys, red-meat kinda guys like Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe. Lordy Lord, I’ll bet you any one of those guys would shoot a man just for snoring!

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Oh, and let’s not forget the great María Conchita Alonso as love interest Sarita Cisneros, a love interest whose loyalties drift, femme fatale-like, between Cash and Jack!

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Anyone but me remember María from back in the day? Seems in the 1980s and early 90s she was every other movie’s slightly exotic love interest. Remember her playing opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1987’s The Running Man? I certainly do!

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Or how about her turn opposite Sean Penn in 1988’s Colors?

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And then she up and disappeared. Such are the vagaries of Hollywood, I guess.

¿María, dónde has ido?

Cult-o-Meter™ (10-pt. scale)

  • 7/10 (General Quality Rating)
  • 12/10 (Enhanced Rating When Viewed Post-Midnight and just back from 25¢ Beer Nite)

Well, that’s it for now. I’ve got a bunch more to chat about, including Amazon Women on the MoonHeathersThey LiveTwo Moon Junction, John Carpenter’s Prince of DarknessNear DarkNorth ShoreShoot to Kill and The Beast, among others, but my fingers are tiring and you’re probably sick of reading…if you made it this far.

Until next time.

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