It’s not every day you get to celebrate the 100th birthday of a still-living filmmaker, so appropos of nothing (else, that is), HBD to Bert I. Gordon, who marked that milestone last Saturday An independent producer, director and writer (as well as father to his favorite performer, the 1960s starlet Susan Cabot), his decades of professional activity earned him the name “Mr. B.I.G.”—because those are his initials, of course.
But also because he specialized in cheesily processed FX supersizing: Starting with 1955’s King Dinosaur, then proceeding through such drive-in chestnuts as Beginning of the End (giant grasshoppers), The Cyclops (giant one-eyed dude), The Amazing Colossal Man (self-explanatory), Earth vs. The Spider (ditto), and Village of the Giants (blown-up teenage delinquents).
The stuff was getting pretty old by the time of the latter in 1965, but then Gordon suddenly made it relevant (if no less campy) a decade later with two ostensibly HG Wells-based sci-fi horror hits, The Food of the Gods (with Marjoe Gortner AND Ida Lupino) and Empire of the Ants (they distress Joan Collins, who must have been really, really grateful when Dynasty came along).
When not hoeing that particular subgenre row (or reversing the size fetish with 1958’s Attack of the Puppet People), Gordon tried juvenile adventure (The Boy and the Pirates, The Magic Sword), psycho chillers (from 1960’s Tormented and Picture Mommy Dead with Zsa Zsa Gabor to Chuck Connors as The Mad Bomber in ’73), witchery (Necromancy with Orson Welles, Burned at the Stake, Satan’s Princess) and sex comedies (including one titled Let’s Do It!). Everyone was shocked when after twenty-six years’ inactivity, he suddenly coughed up 2015’s Secrets of a Psychopath—or, rather, they would have been shocked, had anyone noticed.
These are not good movies. But they are fun movies, even when cheap and boring enough to be fun only as drinking-game movies. And Gordon, who climbed to carve out his little niche of Hollywoodland from humble beginnings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was the kind of cheerful showman who never let the obviousness of rear-projection effects or vapidity of screenplays get in the way of the good time those ticket-buying kids out there were doubtless having, kinda-sorta watching giant insects or giant go-go dancing teens while mostly trying to get to third base.
His films were bad, but they were eccentric, and delivered—eventually—whether the promised goods were monsters, stranglers, or topless broads sacrificing one another to Lucifer. Here’s hoping he’s enjoying his centenary… perhaps in Texas, where he last made a public appearance (with a revival screening of Colossal Man), and where everything is, natch, big.
While I’m not aware of any Gordon-honoring screenings going on this week, there are a couple notable golden oldies returning to circulation. This Wed/28 the Vogue is showing a recent restoration of Marcel Pagnol’s period epic Children of Paradise, which for many years was THE arthouse revival staple, as well as many people’s favorite movie, period. Incredibly shot in a semi-covert fashion during Paris’ Nazi occupation—with Jews and Resistance fighters among the crew—it became the nation’s first celluloid triumph after liberation, even if initially released to some territories in a substantially cut form. We’re promised the full three-hour-plus version at the Vogue: more info here.
That film’s sweeping romanticism couldn’t be further from the headbanger antics of two looks at events across the Atlantic 40-odd years later. Getting re-released to theaters (including SF’s Balboa and CGV Cinemas on Van Ness) this Tues/27 only, Sacha Gervasi’s 2008 Anvil! The Story of Anvil is a fond warts-and-all portrait of the titular Canadian heavy metal band. In the early 80s they seemed on the brink of stardom, and indeed proved a significant influence on major acts like Metallica and Slayer. But real fame did not ensue. Nonetheless, the principal members—despite frequently being at each other’s throats—soldiered on to dwindling returns, hoping for a resurgence… which did, indeed, come. This real-life Spinal Tap is an endearing portrait of diehard rawk spirit.
Among new films, one offers a much bleaker nonfiction flashback to that same metal era, while two more provide social satire in a more up-to-the-moment vein:
The Acid King
In 1984, just as Anvil seemed on the verge of the bigtime (and were stirring mild controversy with such gleefully tasteless songs as “Toe Jam”), other events were occurring that would make such music a target for reactionary paranoia. Ricky Kasso was a dysfunctional teen kicked out by his Long Island family, surviving on drug deals while sampling the goods a bit too much. When a fellow youthful traveler named Gary Lauwers stole some PCP from him, Kasso and a couple other boys ultimately killed him in a particularly brutal fashion that police rather whimsically labeled a “Satanic ritual” by a “devil worship cult.”
Those bogus claims were much inflated by the media, the tragedy poured gas on the fire of a “Satanic panic” that led to numerous false and hysterical accusations in coming years, with metal groups blamed as an “evil” influence. But Kasso & co. were just drugged-out teens whose relationship to the occult ran no deeper than listening to Black Sabbath and such.
Dan Jones and Jesse P. Pollack’s 2019 documentary, releasing to Blu-ray this Thurs/29, is a straightforward true-crime chronicle mostly about sadly dysfunctional families and unstable kids left to fend for themselves. The parade of talking heads includes a number of surviving acquaintances of the principle figures, if also too much input from people whose interest is more of a purely ambulance-chasing nature.
The case’s long-term cultural impact is also examined—if nothing else, Kasso (who committed suicide in jail shortly after arrest) left behind the definitive image of lost suburban youth. Even if you can’t identify the subject, you know the photo: An image of him with wild hair, eyes utterly crazed, the very definition of “drug psychosis.” Thus immortalized, he became a sort of campy cult figure—but the truth is less luridly thrilling than just kinda pathetic.
The Perils of the In-Crowd: ‘Sissy,’ ‘The African Desperate’
If Kasso was your classic societal discard, drifting to the bottom for lack of welcome any higher up, the protagonists in two wittily entertaining new fiction features find that acceptance amongst the cool kids may not be all that desirable, either.
Premiering on genre streaming platform Shudder this Thurs/29, Australian writing-directing duo Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ Sissy centers on the titular figure—though she (Aisha Dee) much, much prefers “Cecilia” to her childhood nickname—who’s the kind of New Age-y self-appointed positive thinking guru in more dire need of such help than her approximately 200,000 online followers. A key to this fragility apparently lies in an erstwhile best-friends-forever relationship that suffered a cruel death long ago.
Ergo it is a somewhat anxiety-inducing happy accident when Cecilia runs into said former BFF Emma (Barlow), who seems overjoyed by their reunion. She insists Sissy attend a party she’s hosting to celebrate her engagement, which goes well enough. She then insists Sissy attend a bachelorette weekend in the country. Unfortunately, it turns out to be hosted by the spiteful Alex (Emily De Margheriti), who drove a wedge between them in the first place, and is really, really not happy to see her old rival (and assailant, but that’s another story).
Tensions run high, Emma’s other friends suddenly do not seem very nice, and we begin to wonder if Sissy/Cecilia might be more seriously unstable than hitherto suspected. Certainly all present are going to find out, to their considerable misfortune.
A stylish black comedy whose interesting angles include an over-the-top, lush orchestral score, Sissy is simultaneously clever, entertaining, and discomfiting, even if some of its satire is on the trite side. There’s also a hole in the logic here: It’s OK if we don’t know just how crazy our heroine is or isn’t for a long time, but less so that the film itself never quite seems to decide. Is some, none, or all of what we see filtered through Sissy’s delusional panic? Go figure. Nonetheless, this is a bright, subversive genre mashup with some very good reversals of fortune in the late going.
Less polished in some respects but also an admirably bold leap is The African Desperate by Martine Syms, a multimedia artist making her first feature as director/co-writer. Palace (Diamond Stingily) is a sculptor who’s just completed her MFA program at an upstate NY liberal arts college. Starting with her (very weird) parting advisor-panel review, and ending with a return to her native Chicago, this drolly off-center comedy charts a last 24 hours in an environment she considers “very ‘Cruel Intentions’…everybody’s up into your business.”
Palace has made lots of friends here, all of whom have their own particular “artistic personality” quirks, rhetoric and assumptions. She swears she is not going to the farewell party tonight (even though she’s expected to DJ), but somehow that ends up happening anyway. She also has no plans to do a lot of drugs…but oh well.
The film’s early going is refreshingly cranky in its social observations, as Syms and her protagonist deal with issues of race, gender, privilege, and other dividers, yet simultaneously refuse to be defined by them. It’s also somewhat wayward and occasionally slack in pacing, until Palace’s indiscriminate consumption of various substances (not all intentional) unexpectedly takes things into a realm of trippy excess.
Even then, however, The African Desperate does not become a cautionary tale, or thriller, or anything else in particular. It hews to its own resolutely idiosyncratic path, which is vaguely reminiscent of 1980s indie hipster comedies (by Jarmusch, Seidelman, etc.), as well as the realm of Christopher Guest ensemble pieces, but also quite remarkably unbound to anything that came before it. While this loose, eccentric film certainly isn’t perfect, it’s a delight, and an original. It opens at the Roxie this Sat/30.