The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Far From Home (dir by Meiert Avis)

There are several lessons that can be learned from watching horror films.  One that is often overlooked is the importance of staying out of trailer parks.  Seriously, I have lost track of how many horror films have taken place within the confines of a trailer park.  Once you see someone surrounded by RVs and mobile homes, you know that they’re probably doomed.

Take 1989’s Far From Home, for instance.

Far From Home is set in perhaps the sleaziest trailer park in America.  This place sits in the middle of the Nevada desert and is run by chain-smoking Agnes Reed (Susan Tyrrell), who has a voice like a bullfrog, a daughter (Stephanie Walski) who is obsessed with watching TV and eating fishsticks, and a delinquent teenage son named Jimmy (Andras Jones).

The only law is provided by Sheriff Bill Childers (Dick Miller), who has a squad car but apparently no deputies.  Childers is gruff but not that bad of a guy once you get to know him.  However, he’s also played by Dick Miller and we all know better than to depend on Dick Miller to maintain the peace.

There’s a gas station nearby.  A mellow Vietnam vet named Duckett (Richard Masur) owns it.  Duckett is always willing to be helpful but he rarely has any gas.  This is one of those small towns where the gas truck apparently only rolls in every two months or so.  Still, Duckett’s a nice guy and he’s full of stories about how the government used to do atomic bomb tests in the surrounding desert.

(The scenes where Duckett drives around the desert feel somewhat out of place but they’re still enjoyable, due to Masur’s eccentric performance.)

Living in the trailer park, there’s a lot of odd people.  Some of them are permanent residents while some of them are just temporarily stranded.  14 year-old Pinky (Anthony Rapp, who would go on to appear in Dazed and Confused and Rent) lives with his mother and is a permanent resident.  His mother is rarely seen, though occasionally she can be glimpsed through a window, propped up in front of the TV.  Pinky says that, when he was a kid, he and Jimmy were best friends.  But now, Jimmy and Pinky are enemies.

And then there’s Amy (Jennifer Tilly) and Louise (Karen Austin), who are just waiting for enough gas to come in to be able to get Amy’s car to start running again.  Louise is intelligent and responsible.  Amy is flighty and undependable.  As soon as one of them accidentally pulls the handle off the driver’s side door, you just know one of them is going to end up getting trapped in that car at a bad moment.

When Far From Home opens, two newcomers have moved into the trailer park.  Writer, divorced father, and self-described “former angry young man” Charlie Cox (Matt Frewer) has just spent a month with his 13 year-old daughter, Joleen (Drew Barrymore, who was 14 when she made Far From Home).  It hasn’t exactly been a great vacation and it doesn’t get any better when Charlie’s car runs out of gas.  Joleen is about to turn fourteen and she doesn’t want to spend her birthday in a crummy trailer park with her incredibly dorky dad.

However, both Jimmy and Pinky are happy that Joleen will be spending at least a day or two at the trailer park.  At first, Joleen crushes on Jimmy and then, after Jimmy reveals himself to be aggressive and unstable, she crushes on Pinky, who protects her from Jimmy.  One of the two boys is so obsessed with Joleen that he is willing to commit murder to keep her from leaving the trailer park.  But which one?

(It’s actually pretty obvious but you probably already guessed that.)

Far From Home is a film about which I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the movie’s totally predictable.  Characters do dumb things for no real reason beyond needing to move the plot forward.  Charlie’s parenting abilities change drastically from scene to scene.  A traumatized character goes from catatonic to recovered to catatonic again with no real explanation.

One of my main issues with the film is that there’s no real surprise about who the killer turns out to be.  Even worse, once the killer’s identity is revealed, the killer suddenly turns into one of those psychos who can come up with a dozen one-liners while trying to kill someone.  I mean, seriously, who does that?  Are movie psychos required to take a year’s worth of improv clubs and do an apprenticeship with the Upright Citizens Brigade before they’re allowed to pick up a knife?  If I was the type to commit murder (and I’m not but let’s just say that I was), I would be too busy trying to make sure everyone was dead to be witty.  I’d save the jokes until I was safely on a beach somewhere, drinking pink lemonade and keeping an eye out for Ben Gardner’s boat.  That’s just me, I guess.

And yet, there’s a part of me that really likes this stupid, stupid movie.  It’s a surprisingly well-directed film, full of artfully composed shots.  The trailer park really does take on a life of its own and the film also makes good use of a nearby abandoned apartment building.  It’s a great location and, occasionally, it lends the film a dash of surrealism.  (Of course, I guess you could legitimately ask who would build an apartment complex in the middle of the desert, especially one that’s still humming with radiation from the Atomic bomb tests, but let’s not.)  Richard Masur, Dick Miller, and Susan Tyrrell all give good performances.  For that matter, the same is true of Anthony Rapp and Andras Jones.  Neither Rapp nor Jones are to blame for the fact that they were let down by a weak script.

Though I doubt either one of them would describe Far From Home as being their proudest cinematic achievement, Matt Frewer and Drew Barrymore are totally believable as father and daughter.  In the end, that’s why I like this movie.  Whenever I’ve watched Far From Home, I’ve always been able to relate to Joleen.  When I was thirteen, I basically was Joleen.

Fortunately, though, I was never found myself stranded in a trailer park full of homicidal maniacs.

I guess I just got lucky that way.

Musical Sequence of the Day: “Notorious” from Donnie Darko (dir by Richard Kelly)

For today’s musical sequence of the day (which is a temporary feature that I’m doing until Val’s internet is working again and she can return to doing her music videos of the day), we have the “Notorious” scene from 2001’s Donnie Darko.

In this scene, Sparkle Motion performs onstage while, miles away, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) burns down the house of creepy motivational speaker, Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze).  Playing throughout this scene: Duran Duran’s “Notorious.”

Why does Drew Barrymore hate Sparkle Motion?

This is the second scene from Donnie Darko to have been featured in this series.  Check out the “Head Over Heels” scene here.

(And yes, one reason why I love this scene is because I very much related to it.  Sparkle Motion is perhaps the most realistic part of Donnie Darko…)

Musical Sequence of the Day: “Head over Heels” from Donnie Darko (dir by Richard Kelly)

Hi, everyone!

Well, Val is having some internet issues so it’s going to be a few days until she’s able to do another music video of the day.  So, until she returns, I’m going to fill in with some of my favorite cinematic musical sequences!  These are scenes that made brilliant use of music.

And what better way to start things off than with the Head Over Heels scene from 2001’s Donnie Darko.  Directed by Richard Kelly, this scene not only makes brilliant use of the Tears For Fears song, Head Over Heels, but it also manages to introduce every character and set up almost every important relationship in the film.

It’s brilliant but I always find myself wondering what Drew Barrymore had against Sparkle Motion.

To quote Val, “Enjoy!”

Back to School #57: Never Been Kissed (dir by Raja Gosnell)


The 1999 romantic comedy Never Been Kissed is a definite guilty pleasure of mine, and that’s not just because of the fact that James Franco has a small role in it.  Never Been Kissed is a genuinely sweet movie that might not be extremely realistic but is still enjoyable.

Never Been Kissed requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, largely because Josie Gellar, the character who has” never been kissed,” is played Drew Barrymore.  Oh, it’s not that Josie hasn’t ever been kissed.  Instead, it’s that she’s never gotten the type of kiss that every girl dreams of getting.  She’s never been kissed by someone who she was truly in love with.  She’s never had the type of romance that everyone dreams of having (especially when they’re in high school).

However, Josie is about to get a chance to find that kiss.  Josie works for a newspaper and her editor (John C. Reilly) has just assigned her to go undercover at a local high school.  Unfortunately, Josie was traumatized by her experiences the first time that she went to high school.  (She wrote a poem for a boy, he responded by asking her to prom and then throwing eggs at her.)  On her first day as a “student,” Josie finds that she is just as unpopular as the last time but now she’s also absolutely out-of-touch with her classmates.  Fortunately, she’s befriended by Aldys (Leelee Sobieski) and, soon, Josie has finally managed to find a place with the Denominators, a group of intelligent students.

Unfortunately, hanging out with the good kids isn’t producing the type of stories that Josie’s editor wants.  He orders Josie to reject Aldys and to befriend the school’s mean girls.  After her brother, Rob (David Arquette), also enrolls in high school, he helps Josie to become the most popular girl in the school.  Soon, Josie is no longer hanging out with Aldys and has been asked to go to the prom by the loathsome Guy Perkins (Jeremy Jordan).

However, Josie has fallen in love with her English teacher, Sam (Michael Vartan).  Sam likes Josie too but, of course, he thinks that she’s a student.  Will Josie tell the truth and risk losing Sam?  Will she be able to maintain her cover even when she discovers that her new friends are planning to humiliate Aldys?  Will Josie ever truly be kissed?

Well, you can probably guess all the answers.  Nothing really surprising happens in Never Been Kissed but it’s still a likable film.  For the most part, the actors all do a good job with their stock roles and David Arquette, especially, is hilarious as a professional slacker who thrives in high school precisely because he’s never bothered to grow up.  (Of course, by the end of the film, his new high school girlfriend is wanting to know what he’s planning on doing with his life after he graduates….)  At no point is the film in any way realistic but it’s still an enjoyable way to spend 110 minutes of your life.


Embracing the Melodrama #41: Poison Ivy (dir by Katt Shea)

“I still think about her. I guess, still love her. She might have been even more alone than I was. I miss her.” — Syvlie Cooper (Sara Gilbert) reflects on her murderous BFF Ivy (Drew Barrymore)

1992’s Poison Ivy is narrated by alienated and confused Sylvie (Sara Gilbert), a teenager who describes herself as being  “the politically / environmentally-correct feminist poetry-reading type.”  Syvlie has issues.  Her father (Tom Skerritt) is a self-righteous television pundit while her mother (Cheryl Ladd) is stuck at home, confined to bed and slowly dying.  Ivy’s only friend is her dog, Fred.  Sylvie deals with her alienation by constantly lying, often claiming that her real father is actually a black man who had an affair with her mother.

When Sylvie sees a girl (Drew Barrymore) brazenly swinging on a rope with her skirt around her waist, she is immediately fascinated. After spending a while obsessing over the girl’s physical appearance, Sylvie tells us, “Maybe I’m a lesbian…no definitely not.  I really wish we could be friends.”  Her desire for friendship continues even after Sylvie witnesses the girl violently euthanize a dog that’s been hit by a car.

Later, at school, Sylvie finds herself sitting in detention for calling in a bomb threat to her father’s show.  When the girl joins her in detention, Sylvie strikes up a conversation with her.  It turns out that the girl knows who Sylvie’s father is and that she considers him to be “an asshole.”  However, that still doesn’t prevent the girl from accepting a ride home with Sylvie and her father.  When introducing the girl, Sylvie calls her “Ivy,” presumably after one of the girl’s tattoos.  What’s interesting — and probably often missed — is that the girl herself never introduces herself as Ivy.  It’s a name given to her by Sylvie.

Not wasting any time, Ivy is soon Sylvie’s best friend and is even living in Sylvie’s house.  At first, Ivy is exactly the best friend that Sylvie needs, encouraging her to come out of her shell, take chances, and even get a tattoo.  However, soon, Ivy is not just helping Sylvie do everything that she’s ever wanted to but she’s also acting on all of Sylvie’s subconscious desires as well.  Ivy first manages to bond with Sylvie’s mother and then proceeds to seduce her father.  Finally, even Fred finds himself preferring the company of Ivy to his original owner…

Is there anything more wonderful than female friendship?  I think not but then again, that’s really not relevant to Poison Ivy because this film has not interest in being a realistic look at the relationship between Sylvie and Ivy.  Instead, it’s a hyper-stylized take on the type of material that you would normally expect to find in a trashy novel and the movie is all the better for it.  Fortunately, the movie was directed by Katt Shea who brings a sensitivity to material that a male director would probably only view as an excuse for titillation.

I think the film is best interpreted as being Sylvie’s fantasy.  In fact, I would argue that the case could be made that the entire film takes place in Sylvie’s head.  It’s her fantasy of having the type of uninhibited friend who will encourage her to conquer all of her fears and who will accept her for all of her strange quirks.  However, that’s not just Sylvie’s fantasy.  That’s a universal fantasy that every teenage girl has had (and probably a few teenage boys as well).  Is there any wonder that the film ends with Sylvie admitting that she still misses Ivy?


10 (Plus) Of My Favorite DVD Commentary Tracks

It seems like I’m always taking a chance when I listen to a DVD commentary track.  Occasionally, a commentary track will make a bad film good and a good film even better.  Far too often, however, listening to a bad or boring commentary track will so totally ruin the experience of watching one of my favorite movies that I’ll never be able to enjoy that movie in the same way again.  I’ve learned to almost always involve any commentary track that involves anyone credited as being an “executive producer.”  They always want to tell you every single detail of what they had to do to raise the money to make the film.  Seriously, executive producers suck. 

However, there are more than a few commentary tracks that I could listen to over and over again.  Listed below are a few of them.

10) Last House On The Left (The Original) — Apparently, there’s a DVD of this film that features a commentary track in which stars David Hess and Fred Lincoln nearly come to blows while debating whether or not this movie should have been made.  The DVD I own doesn’t feature that commentary but it does feature a track featuring writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham.  The thing that I love about their commentary is that they both just come across as such nice, kinda nerdy guys.  You look at the disturbing images onscreen and then you hear Cunningham saying, “We shot this scene in my mom’s backyard.  There’s her swimming pool…”  Both Craven and Cunningham are remarkably honest about the film’s shortcomings (at one point, Craven listens to some of his more awkward dialogue and then says, “Apparently, I was obsessed with breasts…”) while, at the same time, putting the film’s controversy into the proper historical context.

9) Burnt Offerings — When Burnt Offerings, which is an occasionally interesting haunted house movie from 1976, was released on DVD, it came with a commentary track featuring director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the guy who wrote the movie.  This commentary track holds a strange fascination for me because it, literally, is so mind-numbingly bad that I’m not convinced that it wasn’t meant to be some sort of parody of a bad commentary track.   It’s the commentary track equivalent of a car crash.  Curtis dominates the track which is a problem because he comes across like the type of grouchy old man that Ed Asner voiced in Up before his house floated away.  The screenwriter, whose name I cannot bring myself to look up, bravely insists that there’s a lot of nuance to his painfully simple-minded script.  Karen Black, meanwhile, tries to keep things positive.  The high point of the commentary comes when Black points out that one actor playing a menacing chauffeur is giving a good performance (which he is, the performance is the best part of the movie).  She asks who the actor is.  Curtis snaps back that he doesn’t know and then gets testy when Black continues to praise the performance.  Finally, Curtis snaps that the actor’s just some guy they found at an audition.  Actually, the actor is a veteran character actor named Anthony James who has accumulated nearly 100 credits and had a prominent supporting role in two best picture winners (In the Heat of the Night and Unforgiven).

8 ) Cannibal Ferox — This is a good example of a really unwatchable movie that’s made watchable by an entertaining commentary track.  The track is actually made up of two different tracks, one with co-star Giovanni Lombardo Radice and one with director Umberto Lenzi.  Lenzi loves the film and, speaking in broken English, happily defends every frame of it and goes so far as to compare the movie to a John Ford western.  The wonderfully erudite Radice, on the other hand, hates the movie and spends his entire track alternatively apologizing for the movie and wondering why anyone would possibly want to watch it.  My favorite moment comes when Radice, watching the characters onscreen move closer and closer to their bloody doom, says, “They’re all quite stupid, aren’t they?”

7) Race With The Devil Race with the Devil is an obscure but enjoyable drive-in movie from the 70s.  The DVD commentary is provided by costar Lara Parker who, along with providing a lot of behind-the-scenes information, also gets memorably catty when talking about some of her costars.  And, let’s be honest, that’s what most of us want to hear during a DVD commentary.

6) Anything featuring Tim Lucas — Tim Lucas is the world’s foremost authority on one of the greatest directors ever, Mario Bava.  Anchor Bay wisely recruited Lucas to provide commentary for all the Bava films they’ve released on DVD and, even when it comes to some of Bava’s lesser films, Lucas is always informative and insightful.  Perhaps even more importantly, Lucas obviously enjoys watching these movies as much as the rest of us.  Treat yourself and order the Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2.

5) Tropic Thunder — The commentary track here is provided by the film’s co-stars, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr.  What makes it great is that Downey provides his commentary in character as Sgt. Osiris and spends almost the entire track beating up on Jack Black.  This is a rare case of a great movie that has an even greater commentary track.

4) Strange Behavior — This wonderfully offbeat slasher film from 1981 is one of the best movies that nobody seems to have heard of.  For that reason alone, you need to get the DVD and watch it.  Now.  As an added bonus, the DVD comes with a lively commentary track featuring co-stars Dan Shor and Dey Young and the film’s screenwriter, Bill Condon (who is now the director that Rob Marshall wishes he could be).  Along with providing a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia, the three of them also discuss how Young ended up getting seduced by the film’s star (Michael Murphy, who was several decades older), how shocked Condon was that nobody on the set seemed to realize that he’s gay, and why American actors have so much trouble speaking in any accent other than their own.  Most memorable is Young remembering the experience of sitting in a theater, seeing herself getting beaten up onscreen, and then listening as the people sitting around her cheered.

3) Imaginationland — As anyone who has ever listened to their South Park commentaries knows, Matt Stone and Trey Parker usually only offer up about five minutes of commentary per episode before falling silent.  Fortunately, those five minutes are usually hilarious and insightful.  Not only are Parker and Stone remarkably candid when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of their work but they also obviously enjoy hanging out with each other.  With the DVD release of South Park’s Imaginationland trilogy, Matt and Trey attempted to record a “full” 90-minute commentary track.  For the record, they manage to talk for 60 minutes before losing interest and ending the commentary.  However, that track is the funniest, most insightful 60 minutes that one could hope for.

2) Donnie Darko — The original DVD release of Donnie Darko came with 2 wonderful commentary tracks.  The first one features Richard Kelley and Jack Gyllenhaal, talking about the very metaphysical issues that the film addresses.  Having listened to the track, I’m still convinced that Kelley pretty much just made up the film as he went along but its still fascinating to the hear everything that was going on his mind while he was making the film.  However, as good as that first track is, I absolutely love and adore the second one because it features literally the entire cast of the movie.  Seriously, everyone from Drew Barrymore to Jena Malone to Holmes Osborne to the guy who played Frank the Bunny is featured on this track.  They watch the film, everyone comments on random things, and it’s difficult to keep track of who is saying what.  And that’s part of the fun.  It’s like watching the film at a party full of people who are a lot more interesting, funny, and likable than your own actual friends.

1) The Beyond — This movie, one of the greatest ever made, had one of the best casts in the history of Italian horror and the commentary here features two key members of that cast — Catriona MacColl and the late (and wonderful) David Warbeck.  The commentary, which I believe was actually recorded for a laserdisc edition of the film (though, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen a “laserdisc” and I have my doubts as to whether or not they actually ever existed), was recorded in 1997, shortly after the death of director Lucio Fulci and at a time when Warbeck himself was dying from cancer.  (Warbeck would pass away two weeks after recording this commentary).  This makes this commentary especially poignant.  Warbeck was, in many ways, the human face of Italian exploitation, a talented actor who probably deserved to be a bigger star but who was never ashamed of the films he ended up making.  This commentary — in which MacColl and Warbeck quite cheerfully recall discuss making this underrated movie — is as much a tribute to Warbeck as it is to Fulci.  Highpoint: MacColl pointing out all the scenes in which Warbeck nearly made her break out laughing.  My personal favorite is the scene (which made it into the final film) where Warbeck attempts to load a gun by shoving bullets down the barrel.  The wonderful thing about this track is that Warbeck and MacColl enjoy watching it too.