The Films of 2020: John Henry (dir by Will Forbes)

John Henry tells the story of a man named …. well, John Henry.  He’s played by Terry Crews and he lives in South Los Angeles with his father, BJ Henry (Ken Foree).  BJ may have to carry an oxygen tank around with him but he still has enough strength to shout, “My dick is legendary,” so good for him.

(Actually, it may sound like I’m being snarky and, to a certain extent, I am.  But having Ken Foree play Terry Crews’s father is actually a brilliant piece of casting.)

John Henry used to be into the gang lifestyle but now he’s gone straight.  We see flashbacks to his former life and how he used to hang out with his cousin, Hell (Ludacris).  When John accidentally shot Hell in the face, he decided to retire from crime and he also swore off carrying a gun.  Hell, on the other hand, just got a fancy gold-plated jaw.  Years later, Hell is a crime lord and John Henry is wandering around with sledgehammer.

When a Honduran refugee named Berta (Jamila Velazquez) show up at John Henry’s house, on the run from Hell’s crew, BJ’s reaction is to kick her out.  But John Henry, being the gentle giant with a sledgehammer, allows her to stay.  When Hell and his crew show up, it leads to violence, death, and …. well, that’s pretty much it.

John Henry is an odd film.  The tone is literally all over the place as the film swerves from being a comic book film to a serious drama to a comedy to a Spaghetti western.  It takes a lot of skill to take that many different tonal shifts and turn them into a coherent movie and unfortunately, that really doesn’t happen with John Henry.  The minute you start to get used to the idea of the film being an over-the-top comic book film, it suddenly tries to be a meditation on violence and guilt.  As soon as you’re getting used to the idea of it being a drama, Ludacris shows up with a huge hunk of medal on his face.  It’s hard to keep track of what exactly the film is saying because the film itself doesn’t seem to know.  I guess that could be forgiven if the film’s action managed to maintain a steady pace but instead, this felt like one of the longest 91-minute films that I’ve ever watched.

However, as our longtime readers should know by now, I’m not a fan of excessive negativity so let’s take a few moments to discuss what did work.  I already mentioned the casting of Terry Crews and Ken Foree.  They’re fun to watch together.  Ludacris’s gold-plated jaw is an amusing detail and it’s unfortunate that the film didn’t have more similarly odd details like that.  I also liked the opening credits, which basically told the film’s story in a comic book form.  The credits were fun and they hinted at what this film could have been if it had been better-paced and had fully embraced its camp potential.

John Henry played in some theaters before the pandemic outbreak.  It later found a home on Netflix and it’s in the process of developing a bit of a cult reputation.  Reportedly, there will be a sequel so I guess it’s not time to take John Henry to the graveyard just yet.

Feeling the Burn: Death Spa (1989, directed by Michael Fischa)

Michael (William Bumiller) owns the hottest health club in Los Angeles but that may not stay true if he can’t do something about all the guests dying.  Members get baked alive in the sauna.  Another is killed when a malfunctioning workout machine pulls back his arms and causes a rib to burst out of one side of his body.  Shower tiles fly off the wall and panic a bunch of naked women.  A woman loses her arm in a blender and a man is somehow killed by a frozen fish.  Strangely, all of the deaths don’t seem to hurt business as people still keep coming to the gym.  Surely, there are other, safer health clubs in Los Angeles.

Michael suspects that his brother-in-law, David (Merritt Butrick), might be to blame for all of the trouble.  David is good with computers and since this movie is from 1989, that means that he can do anything.  (David is described as being a “hacker,” which may be the first time that overused term was used in a film.)  Michael feels that David has never forgiven him for the suicide of his sister.  Two useless cops show up to investigate the murders while the spa gets ready for Mardi Gras night.

This incredibly cheesy horror movie used to be a mainstay on HBO, where young viewers like me appreciated all of the gore and slightly older viewers appreciated all of the nudity.  Viewed today, Death Spa is a real nostalgia trip.  From the leg warmers to the bulky computers to the choreographed workout routines, this is a movie that could only have been made in the 80s.  The plot is beyond stupid but some of the gore effects were well-executed and that scene where the frozen fish comes to life continues to amaze.  Sadly, this was Merritt Butrick’s last film.  The actor, who was best known for playing Captain’s Kirk’s son in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, died the same year that Death Spa was released.

A Movie A Day #274: The Dentist (1996, directed by Brian Yuzna)

Alan (Corbin Bernsen) may be a wealthy dentist in Malibu but he still has problems.  He has got an IRS agent (Earl Boen) breathing down his neck.  His assistant, Jessica (Molly Hagan), has no respect for him.  His demanding patients don’t take care of their teeth.  His wife (Linda Hoffman) is fucking the pool guy (Michael Stadvec).  When Alan feels up a beauty queen while she’s passed out from the nitrous oxide, her manager (Mark “yes, the Hulk” Ruffalo) punches him and then goes to the police.  Under pressure from all sides, Alan loses his mind and a crazy dentist with a drill means a lot of missing teeth.

“You’re a rabid anti-dentite!” Kramer once yelled at Jerry Seinfeld and even people who were not already uneasy about going to dentist will be after watching Corbin Bernsen stick his drill in Earl Boen’s mouth.  The scene where Alan tells a group of dental students to yank out their patients’ teeth represents everyone’s worst fear of what dentists talk about when there aren’t any innocent bystanders around.  The Dentist may be predictable but Corbin Bernsen gives the performance of his career, playing the nightmare of anyone who has ever had a toothache.

Of course, good health begins with healthy teeth and real-life dentists provide a valuable service.  Take it from Robert Wagner:

A Movie A Day #104: True Blood (1989, directed by Richard Kerr)

Ten years after being wrongly accused of murdering a cop, Raymond Trueblood (Jeff Fahey) returns to the old neighborhood.  Ray has just finished a stint with the Marines and he is no longer the irresponsible hoodlum that he once was.  He wants to rescue his younger brother, Donny (Chad Lowe), from making the same mistakes that he made.  But Donny now hates Ray and is running with Ray’s former friend, Spider Masters (Billy Drago).  Spider is also responsible for framing Ray for killing the cop.  When he is not trying to save his brother, Ray falls in love with Jennifer Scott (Sherilyn Fenn), a tough waitress who is soon being menaced by Spider.

Like Crime Zone, True Blood is typical of the type of B-movies that Sherilyn Fenn was stuck in before being cast as Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks.  It’s a nothing part but Fenn is authentic and sincere in the part and, as usual, Fenn’s performance is one of the best things about the movie.

Overall, True Blood is predictable but it is still better than the typical late 80s B-movie.  Chad Lowe is never believable as a member of a street gang but Jeff Fahey does a good Clint Eastwood impersonation as Ray and Billy Drago is, as always, a great villain.  Fans of Dawn of the Dead will want to keep an eye out for Ken Foree as one of the detectives investigating Ray.

Scenes I Love: Dawn of the Dead (Original 1978)

I know this latest “Scenes I Love” is quite an extended one. It’s pretty much the entire opening to the original George A. Romero classic where we see the four main leads of the story introduced dealing with the crisis that’s been on-going around them for what could be weeks.

I could have easily taken so many smaller scenes from this extended sequence and used them as favorites since they’re all that and more. This sequence was Romero at his best as a screenwriter. While some of the heavy handedness would later plague his writing in his later zombie films in this one they take on the right balance. He’s telling the audience through the screaming outbursts, arguments and general chaos of every scene that we as a society were fucked the moment the zombie apocalypse began. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the civilian expert trying to explain how to deal with the crisis in such logical terms while everyone around him reacts with irrational outbursts of disagreements. Or it could be how the police and the civilians they’re sworn to protect and serve become warring tribes on opposite sides when the true enemy is shambling all around them.

This makes the crippled priest’s words in the end of the scene even more telling.