30Hz Underrated Thrillers
originally published on rupertpupkinspeaks.com
I watched 52 Pick-Up, and then the next day Brian Saur invited me to tackle a Thriller list for his site www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com. Hence, I used this film to inspire my entire list. I have an odd affection for the crime thrillers of the 1980’s and early 90’s. As I compiled the list and rewatched a few of my favorites, the tropes became clear. Drugs. Hypersexualization. nudity. Gaudy color palettes and neon lights. The shady characters of mid-century noir modernized with the paranoia of the blooming digital age. The thrillers made during this decade-plus owned up to a specific brand of exploitation. Though violence remained an essential component, excessive violence rarely defined the films. The fetishization of violence became more essential to the genre as the 90’s wore on (and wore out of ideas). I tried to come up with name for this subgenre. “Neon Noir” came to mind first as a play on Neo-noir. “Cocaine Noir” sounded more thrilling and better reflected the sleazy underbelly often represented. I liked the sound of that so I googled “Cocaine Noir” and found that someone on Letterboxd named David Raposa beat me to the punch. Damn you, David Raposa. Anyway, here are a handful of my oft-overlooked or underwatched picks from that decade and a half of underappreciated cinema/Hollywood trash. My last pick fits the era, but not the Cocaine/Neon Noir label. I’d have been remiss to leave it off the list, however. Consistency be damned.
52 Pick-Up (1986)
“There’s something about your face that makes me want to slap the shit out of it.”
52 Pick-Up is modern noir with a healthy dash of that 80’s sleaze and a side of classic cred from Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret. Scheider plays a downtrodden everyman who gets caught on camera in the throws of coitus with a young hussy. Now Scheider’s being blackmailed by an unsavory group of lowlifes led by a porno director (played by the hyperbolic and always-entertaining John Glover). When Scheider doesn’t play according to the rules of blackmail, the lowlifes up the stakes, and Glover’s porno-Demille becomes increasingly determined to take Scheider for everything he’s got.
As Glover’s plan spins awesomely out of control, Scheider becomes cool and calculating. The oh-so-satisfying ending pays off audience expectation with a nifty variation on the Chekhov’s gun literary theory. I’m thrilled that Kino has added 52 Pick-Up to their calendar of upcoming Blu-ray releases.
Heaven’s Prisoners (1996)
“I dunno, Bubba. I dunno what you think.”
“Maybe if a person wants to find out, they just gotta keep fucking in the same direction.”
“You know something, partner? That’s a two-way street.”
Let me be clear. I cannot recommend this movie to anyone. Not really. I can’t say Heaven’s Prisoners has gotten better with time or that it was just misunderstood. It’s sleazy, but the sleaze is half-hearted Hollywood exploitation centered on the spectacle of full-frontal Teri Hatcher. Mary Stuart Masterson in bustiers and flouncy leisurewear presents an argument for most unbelievable stripper in cinema history. Alec Baldwin’s accent drifts in and out but mostly around a Louisiana drawl. The beltless acid-washed jeans hiked up to his nipples don’t do his boxy figure any favors. The purple dialogue screams B-flick trash-o-drama despite the film’s rigorous attempts to convince you that this is serious-minded entertainment for serious-minded folks. Heaven’s Prisoners misses the beat of New Orleans so entirely that the screenwriters must have been checking for a pulse in its elbow. Did I mention cornrowed and ponytailed Eric Roberts chewing cocktail shrimp (and scenery) and bitching about sweat rings on his patio table?
As I was saying, do not watch this movie…
…unless… you think that sounds positively awesomeful (which it is)… or that you fondly remember mid-90’s Alec Baldwin as a killer leading man (which we was). Despite the heaping portions of awesomefulness, Heaven’s Prisoners still manages an unsettling depth of menace. Everyone in N’awlins has something to hide. And all that menace comes to a head in a legitimately entertaining finale, no ironic enjoyment necessary. Director Phil Joanou (Twelve O’Clock High, U2 Rattle and Hum, State of Grace) betters the material with some creative visuals and stylish action, yet Heaven’s Prisoners’ critical punishment derailed his Hollywood career for a decade.
I’ve been told to read James Lee Burke’s books instead, but I know for a fact that the book doesn’t feature crazy Eric Roberts, so no sale.
Bedroom Window (1987)
“Why should my life be turned upside down just because I happened to look out the window?”
Steve Guttenberg stars in this tale of sex, murder and betrayal.
Wait—so that’s not how you want this recommendation to start? Which part went wrong? The sex? The murder? Ahh, yes… the Guttenberg. Hear me out.
I’m always interested in actors playing against type. Released the same year as Police Academy 4 and Three Men and a Baby, Bedroom Window marked a fascinating transgression in the Guttenberg’s career. And while the Guttenbergery remains, his bumbling everyman fits the movie. He’s just a guy making bad decisions under extraordinary circumstances.
After Guttenberg engages in a night of passion with Sylvia, his boss’s wife (Isabelle Huppert), an assault takes place outside his bedroom window. But only Sylvia witnesses it. She kinda/sorta wants to do the right thing, but doing the right thing means exposing their affair. So the right-minded Guttenberg tries to be chivalrous, calls the police after suspecting that the same assailant later assaulted and murdered another woman. Denise, (the first, not-dead victim, played by Elizabeth McGovern) suspects something’s rotten with Guttenberg when he shows up to identify the perp. Soon the tables are turned and the supposed Good Samaritan becomes the primary suspect.
Once you get beyond the oddity of dramatic Guttenberg, you realize he throws out a steady performance. Written and directed by Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys, L.A. Confidential), Bedroom Window allows Steve to be Guttenberg within the context of a traditional 80’s thriller. The film throws out two solid twists, both completely earned within the narrative, and delivers a satisfying climax.
The Guttenberg plays, even in Hitchcock-lite.
Slam Dance (1987)
“I just got hit in the nuts with a fucking rubber chicken.”
After sampling a number of contemporary reviews about Slam Dance, I’ve chosen to quote perhaps the most glowing blurb from Variety: “Slam Dance is like junk food. It’s brightly packaged, looks good and satisfied the hunger for entertainment, but it isn’t terribly nourishing or well-made.” Here’s another favorite from New York Times film critic Vincent Canby about director Wayne Wang: “[Wang] goes straight if quite gracefully to the bottom with his first mainstream movie.”
Eviscerated by critics upon its release (and even screened at Cannes in 1987), Slam Dance disappeared from theaters without so much as the opportunity to carve “SD was here” into the arm rests. The film banked $400,000 and cost $4.5 million to shoot. Prior to Slam Dance, Wang directed modest films about Chinese American characters. Later in his career he’d go through a renaissance with some slick indie films such as Smoke and Blue in the Face before sliding comfortably into vanilla studio flicks like Maid in Manhattan.
Slam Dance concerns a married (but estranged) cartoonist C.C. Drood, played by the manic, occasionally brilliant Tom Hulce. One minute Drood’s making funny faces at his kid with his false teeth (teeth lost, presumably, while slam dancing) and the next he’s being tossed in a car and beaten by a goon played by a devilishly good Adam Ant. Drood had an affair with the now dead, presumed murdered Yolanda (sexy-time Virginia Madsen with nothing better to do than bat come-hither eyes), and now the bad guys believe Drood has something they want. Drood doesn’t know and they’re all “Well, you should know!” And they go back and forth like that for 70 minutes or so. That’s pretty much as coherent as this movie gets.
A comparison to David Lynch here is apropos. Rumors abound that the studio interfered with the movie Wayne Wang wanted to make, panicking during production about the commercial viability of a Lynchian movie not made by David Lynch. The purported studio interference didn’t make Slam Dance more commercial, just more confused. And as the sort of fellow who enjoys bungled but fascinating cinematic experiences, I enjoyed the movie immensely. Slam Dance punches that ticket. Toss in a corrupt cop; a good cop named Smiley (played without quirk or humor by Harry Dean Stanton); lesbian love affairs; oddball paintings; insane art collectors; ritzy cocktail parties; a deaf landlady; scuba masks; gratuitous secretarial nudity; and lush, décor and art direction. The ending feels a bit deus ex machina for the sake of a happy time resolution, but I’ll allow it because along the way it prescribes a bit of squirm-inducing dental work with a chisel and hammer.
Say what you want about Slam Dance’s narrative intelligibility, but it certainly doesn’t deserve its stinkball reputation. Any movie that dares to be this odd deserves some respect and perhaps someday a little redemption. I had even more fun revisiting this gleeful mess of a movie than I did upon my first viewing years ago.
Union City (1980)
“Nobody puts their filthy lips around my milk bottle.”
I still don’t know exactly what to think about this movie. Is it tongue-in-cheek? Is it hard-boiled 50’s noir? Is it just a nasty comedy? Let’s go with Choice D, all of the above. Dennis Lipscomb (who just recently passed in July) plays Harlan, an uptight version of a 1940/50’s working stiff. He lives in a modest apartment with his dowdy wife, a sexually frustrated version of a 1940/50’s homemaker played by Debbie Harry. Sexually frustrated. Dowdy. Debbie Harry. It’s a fascinating bit of casting that adds to the film’s surreality.
Union City consumes and regurgitates 1950’s noir into the mouth of the early 1980’s. Stilted acting. Garish primary colors. A dash of PG eroticism that manages to be more titillating than most overt R-rated sexuality. The first thirty minutes of the movie concern Harlan’s obsessive concern about who or what is stealing sips from his milk bottles (which, of course, are still left by a milkman outside his door). His obsession grows until everything else in his life becomes static. His wife seeks affection from another man as Harlan becomes irrationally violent and insistent about solving the “crime.”
The thing with Union City is that it’s impossible to tell if what you’re watching is the downside to low (nonexistent?) budget filmmaking or a singular vision from a talented filmmaker. I’ve never seen another film from director Marcus Reichert to know if he carried any of this potential into other endeavors. Whether or not Union City is a happy accident, it’s still a beguiling bit pitch-black comedy for those schooled in the tropes of classic noir thrillers. Plus Pat Benatar shows up near the end. Pat Benatar!
(The Fox Lorber DVD released in North America is VHS-dub, full-screen garbage that turns casts everything in a ghastly shade of brown. Region-free folks must track down the Tartan UK edition.)
Road Games (1981)
“Are all truck drivers as stuck up as you?”
“Madam, just because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver.”
Stacy Keach boasts 194 credits on his IMDB page. If you were to become the world’s foremost Stacy Keach expert and watch each and every entry on that list, you’d be hard pressed to find a role better suited for Stacy Keach than Pat Quid; a nosy, harmonica-playing truck driver; in the Australian Road Games. He spins yarns and spits monologues while ogling fellow motorists/impediments to pass the long hours on the road.
I first learned of Road Games in the excellent documentary about Australian exploitation films called Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! In that doc, Road Games’ director Richard Franklin was likened to the Australian Hitchcock. Clearly, this movie required a watch.
A serial killer has made a name for himself murdering young Australian women. Pat Quid becomes suspicious of a recurring creepy dude in a green van along the road to Perth. His best intentions go pear-shaped after he picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) and the locals start to consider Quid a primary suspect. Road Games mixes excellent dialogue and humor with legitimate suspense. Franklin earns the Hitchcock comparison with stylistic dashes of Rear Window and Psycho. He went on to direct the underrated Patrick (and Psycho II) as well.
Now out of print on DVD, Road Games demands an upgrade.