Horror Film Review: Nadja (dir by Michael Michael Almereyda)


When we first meet Nadja (Elina Löwensohn), the title character of this odd, 1994 film, she is walking around New York, wearing a cape and picking up men in bars.  She speaks with a thick, Eastern European accent and when she’s asked what she does, she explains that she comes from an old and very wealthy Romanian family.  As we quickly guess, Nadja has lived for centuries.  She’s a vampire, a daughter of Count Dracula.  Everything she says and everything she does is drenched in the ennui of someone who wishes to be set free but who knows she is destined to live forever in the prison of her existence.  Even when she has visions of her father getting a stake through the heart, it doesn’t provide her with the relief for which she was hoping.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that it was a member of the Helsing family that drove the stake through Dracula’s heart.  However, having killed the vampire, Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) finds himself in trouble with the police.  Apparently, the cops don’t believe Van Helsing when he insists that he was just killing a vampire.  As far as they can tell, Van Helsing just killed a man with a sharp piece of wood.  Fortunately, Van Helsing’s nephew, Jim (Martin Donavon), also lives in New York and can bail his uncle out of jail.

While Jim is dealing with his uncle, Nadja is meeting a woman in a bar, a woman named Lucy (Galaxy Craze).  Both Lucy and Nadja feel empty and unfulfilled.  Lucy, who happens to be married to Jim, is soon inviting Nadja back to her home and becoming obsessed with her.  However, Nadja is more concerned with her brother, Edgar (Jared Harris).  Edgar lives in Brooklyn with his lover and nurse, Cassandra (Suzy Amis).  When Nadja visits Edgar, she decides to take Cassandra away from him.  Of course, Cassandra just happens to be Van Helsing’s daughter and Jim’s cousin!

Nadja is an odd film.  On the one hand, it’s pretentious in the way that only a mid-90s, New York art film can be.  Director Michael Almereyda shot the majority of film at night and a good deal of it with a PXL-2000, which was basically a toy video camera that was specifically marketed to children.  As a result, the black-and-white images are usually dark and grainy.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of struggle to tell just what exactly is happening on-screen.  And yet, at the same time, it kinda works.  Those hazy images, combined with the largely deadpan performances of the cast, give the film an undeniably dream-like feel.  When we see Nadja walking through the city, we feel her ennui and otherworldly presence.  At its best, the film achieves a hypnotic visual beauty.  If ever there was an American city that benefits from being filmed in grainy black-and-white, it’s New York City.

The film plays out like a satire of the typical decadent vampire film.  (Nadja even has a Renfield of very own.)  Nadja is so obviously a vampire that it’s impossible not to be amused by the fact that hardly anyone else seems to pick up on it.  However, the film’s most subversive element is Peter Fonda’s performance as Van Helsing.  With his long hair and a demented gleam in his eye, Fonda totally upends all our assumptions about who someone named Van Helsing should be.

In many ways, Nadja plays out like an elaborate inside joke but it’s just strange enough to always be watchable.  David Lynch, whose influence is obvious, has a cameo as a morgue attendant and he feels right at home.  This deadpan vampire film many not be for everyone but then again, few worthwhile films are.

Scenes that I Love: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper Do Mardi Gras and Drop Acid in Easy Rider!


Today, a lot of people have traveled to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras.  Here’s hoping that they have a better time in the city than Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) had in the 1969 film, Easy Rider.

The scenes below, featuring Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black, and the legendary Toni Basil were actually filmed at Mardi Gras in 1968.  These were among the first scenes that Hopper (making his directorial debut) shot for the film and reportedly, filming was so chaotic that they were also nearly the last scenes to be filmed.  As those who have seen Easy Rider know, Billy and Wyatt spend the entire movie trying to get to New Orleans so that they can visit a famous brothel.  Once they get there, they discover that absolutely nothing lives up to the legend.  The brothel is a sleazy mess.  Mardi Gras is full of bad vibes.  Wyatt has an amazingly bad LSD trip.  (Hopper convinced Fonda to really drop acid before filming the scene, which led some harrowing footage.)  After they leave New Orleans, Fonda and Hopper cross the border into Texas and promptly end up getting blown away by two rednecks in a pickup truck.

Welcome to the sixties!

In the scene below, we get actual footage of 1968’s Mardi Gras.  Just watch all the celebrants who stop to stare at the  camera.

And here is the infamous cemetery scene.  Fonda resisted doing it and the end result is not easy to watch but it’s also one of the most powerful moments in the entire film:

Get Your Motor Runnin’ with THE WILD ANGELS (AIP 1966)


cracked rear viewer

Roger Corman  kicked off the outlaw biker film genre with THE WILD ANGELS, setting the template for all biker flicks to come. Sure, there had been motorcycle movies before: Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and the low-budget MOTORCYCLE GANG spring to mind. But THE WILD ANGELS busted open box offices on the Grindhouse and Drive-In circuits, and soon an army of outlaw bikers roared into a theater near you! There was BORN LOSERS , DEVIL’S ANGELS, THE GLORY STOMPERS , REBEL ROUSERS, ANGELS FROM HELL, and dozens more straight into the mid-70’s, when the cycle cycle revved its last rev. But Corman’s saga of the freewheeling Angels  was there first; as always, Rapid Roger was the leader of the pack.

Our movie begins with the classic fuzz-tone guitar sound of Davie Allen, as Angels president Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda ) rolls down the road to pick up club…

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A Movie A Day #347: High-Ballin’ (1978, directed by Peter Carter)


Hey, good buddy, remember the Snowman?

The Snowman was the handle of Cledus Snow, the independent trucker who, along with his basset hound Flash, helped the Bandit escape Smokey in three different movies.  Cledus was played by the country western singer, Jerry Reed.  Interestingly, when Smokey and the Bandit was still in preproduction, the film’s producers envisioned a low-budget drive-in movie with Reed in the role of the Bandit.  When Burt Reynolds signaled that he would be interested in playing the man in the black Trans Am, Reed was instead cast as Cledus.

The box office success of Smokey and the Bandit led to several road films being rushed into production and more than a few of them starred Jerry Reed.  Several other of them starred Peter Fonda, who had already proven himself to be the king of the road with Easy Rider.  However, High-Ballin’ is the only trucker film that can claim to have starred both Jerry Reed and Peter Fonda.

In High-Ballin’, Jerry Reed may be playing “Iron Duke” Boykin but he might as well just be Cledus Snow again.  Once again, Reed is an independent trucker with a family at home and a love for the road.  (Just as he did with Smokey and the Bandit, Reed even performed High-Ballin‘s theme song.)  The local trucker’s union is putting pressure on the independent truckers and trying to intimidate them into joining.  Iron Duke has no intention of doing that.  Iron Duke has been hired to haul a load of liquor to an isolated lumber camp and he is not going to let the union or its thugs stop him.  Helping him along the way is his friend Rane (Peter Fonda) and another independent, Pickup (Helen Shaver).

High-Ballin‘ was not as bad as I was expecting it to be.  Reed, Fonda, and Shaver are likable in the lead roles and the action scenes are exciting.  Fonda may have been a notoriously inexpressive actor but he was always believable whenever he was cast as a rebel or an outsider and the friendship between him and the more expressive Reed is as believable as the friendship between Cledus and the Bandit in Reed’s previous trucking film.  Of course, the main reason you are going to watch a movie like High-Ballin’ is to see how many different ways that a car or a truck can be destroyed and this movie does not skimp on the vehicular destruction.  It’s nothing great but, as far as 70s trucking films are concerned, High-Ballin’ is better than average.

One final note: keep an eye out for Michael Ironside in an early role.

10-4, good buddy.  I’m out.

Short Horror Film Review: Spirits of the Dead — Metzengerstein (dir by Roger Vadim)


First released in 1968, Spirits of the Dead is an anthology film, one in which three famous international directors (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini) each took a shot at adapting a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  By their very nature, anthology films tend to be uneven and that’s certainly the case with Spirits of the Dead.

Consider the first story in the film, Roger Vadim’s adaptation of Metzengerstein.  Vadim was best known for his visually lavish films, the majority of which starred whoever he happened to be romantically involved with at the time.  Vadim’s films were sexually charged and decadent but it was a very specific, late 60s type of decadence.  They may have seemed wild when they were first released but, seen today, his films seem rather quaint (not to mention dated).

Anyway, when Vadim was hired to shoot his part of Spirits of the Dead, he was married to Jane Fonda so, of course, she stars as Countess Frederique Metzengerstein (Jane Fonda).  That Countess Frederique is evil is obvious from the start.  In between having tastefully shot orgies, she torments her servants.  She even has one servant boy hung so that she can see if she can shoot an arrow through the rope.  (Fortunately, for the servant boy, she can.)  It’s an evil, spiritually empty life but, as can be seen in the picture above, her clothes are to die for.

(Though Metzengerstein appears to be taking place in the 19th century, everyone looks like they’ve just flown over from swinging London.  There’s a lot of miniskirts, sideburns, and tinted glasses.)

Anyway, things change for Frederique when she meets her virtuous cousin, Wilhelm.  She immediately falls into lust with him but he wants nothing to do with her and her evil ways.  (Her cousin, I might add, is played by Peter Fonda, brother of Jane.)  Upset over being rejected, Frederique sets his stables on fire.  Wilhelm dies in the inferno.

After Wilhelm’s death, a new horse suddenly appears outside of Frederique’s castle.  Convinced that Wilhelm’s spirit has inhabited it, Frederique grows obsessed with the horse.  Soon, Frederique is spending all of her time riding the horse.  With no more time to be evil, Frederique becomes less feared.

But, in the distance, there are always flames calling out to her…

So, let’s just start with the obvious.  There is a huge ick factor to be found in Metzengerstein.  Just as Frederique spends the first half of the movie in love with her cousin, Jane Fonda spends the first half of the movie pretending to be in love with Peter Fonda.  Wilhelm, of course, rejects Frederique but still, it just feels undeniably … creepy.  What’s odd is that it’s difficult to tell if Vadim was trying to make the audience uncomfortable or if this casting was just a case of Peter having some time to kill while visiting his sister and brother-in-law.  For all the attention that he pays to the film’s lush visuals, Vadim is such a detached storyteller that it’s hard to guess what his intention was.

Jane Fonda gives a good performance as the cruel Frederique but otherwise, everyone else in the film is just a part of the scenery.  That’s the thing with Metzengerstein.  It’s a gorgeous film but, ultimately, it’s all scenery that adds up to nothing.

 

 

A Movie A Day #196: Mercenary Fighters (1988, directed by Riki Shelach Nissimoff)


Everyone’s favorite hippie action hero, Peter Fonda, plays Virelli, a long-haired Vietnam vet turned mercenary who is hired by a corrupt African general (Robert Doqui) to protect the construction of a dam that will result in the flooding of a native village.  Got all that?  Though Fonda is top-billed, he is not the star of the film.  The star is Reb Brown, who plays T.J. Christian.  T.J. starts out as a member of Fonda’s team but then he falls in love with a nurse (Joanna Weinberg) and he switches sides.  The villagers need someone to lead their revolution and all it takes is hearing Reb Brown do one of his trademarks power yells to know that he’s the man for the job.  Reb Brown was famous for yelling whenever he did anything and he yells a lot in Mercenary Fighters, even more than he yelled in Space Mutiny.

Mercenary Fighters is a typical Cannon film from the late 80s.  Like many of Cannon’s mercenary movies, it was covertly filmed in South Africa, at a time when apartheid was still being enforced and Nelson Mandela was still sitting in a prison cell.  (Cannon was not the only film company to secretly make movies in South Africa during the Apartheid Era.  They were just the most blatant about it.)  Richard Kiel apparently turned down Peter Fonda’s role.  It’s hard to imagine Kiel in the role but perhaps that’s because Virelli is a quintessential Peter Fonda-in-the-80s role.   Fonda glides through the film, delivering his lines like a California surfer who just smoked the kine bud.  The presence of Ron “Superfly” O’Neal and James “son of Robert” Mitchum serves to elevate the film’s cool factor while Robert Doqui brings some “I’ve worked with both Robert Altman and Paul Verhoeven” credibility to his one-note role.  Mercenary Fighters is good for anyone who is into either mindless Cannon action movies or Reb Brown yelling while shit blows up behind him.

My Favorite Super Bowl Commercial 2017


cracked rear viewer

I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the ads during last night’s nail-biting Super Bowl, but this one caught my eye. A rowdy gang of bikers are partying hardy, when one comes in and tells his brothers they’re “Blocked in!”. The gang goes outside ready for action, when they see a shiny new Mercedes AMG GT Roadster. Who’s driving? None other than Mr. Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda! The ad was directed by the Coen Brothers, and as we say in New England, it’s “wicked funny”! Enjoy!

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