Friday, January 6, 2012

The Art of the B-Movie: Hobo With a Shotgun, Rolling Thunder, Primitive, and More!

The Art of the B-Movie:

- Why is it that certain movies that are, on one level, sort of ridiculous, still resonate with viewers and find a cult following? What separates a great B-movie from a terrible "regular" movie? Oftentimes, it's a fine line. Just an ounce too much self-awareness, and you get a trying-too-hard wannabe like Snakes on a Plane. And yet - if there's no self-awareness whatsoever, not even the slightest wink, then you might have yourself a movie that's only "B" as in bad. But something magical happens when a movie dares to be weird, out-there, or insane, yet doesn't feel the need to explain or justify itself to anyone who doesn't immediately "get" what it's going for. That's when a movie becomes transcendentally entertaining. And that's when we get into the world inhabited by the John Carpenters and Sam Raimis and W.D. Richters of the world - movies like Escape From New York, They Live, Evil Dead, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. These are movies that - like the pulp novels and comic books that are their spiritual forefathers, are gloriously self-assured visions of highly-stylized adventure.

Nowadays, we get a lot of movies that are self-consciously "B." And that can be problematic, because as I said, one hallmark of a great B-movie is that, while watching, you can only detect the slightest sense of self-awareness. And yet, movies like Planet Terror, Deathproof (together comprising GRINDHOUSE), and Machete are self-styled B-movies. They all have metatextual elements that scream "hey, we're making a B-movie here!" And yet, they still work, because the script, direction, and acting so perfectly mimic the genuine articles. With Snakes on a Plane, what you saw was a movie that started out just being bad. At some point, people realized it was bad, and tried to turn it around to being ironically-bad. Insert a few jokes, crank up the absurdity, and wink at the audience a few times, and suddenly, your bad movie becomes a B-movie cult classic ... in theory. But in practice, it was obvious that Snakes came less from the genuine place of passion that all great B-movies come from, and more from a cynical, cash-grabbing place from which legitimately terrible movies tend to originate.

At the same time, movies like Machete have done a fantastic job of paying homage to B-movie/grindhouse cinema. Machete is a winking tribute, but also functions as a great grindhouse movie in and of itself - just with perhaps a little bit more self-awareness than is typical. Which brings me to ...


HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, a movie that started as a trailer and evolved into a full-length feature. HOBO is a movie that, like Machete, knows exactly what it's trying to be, but is a bit more of an authentic grindhouse experience in that it rarely winks, or goes for self-aware humor. In Machete, star Danny Trejo plays things broad, almost like he's in a comedy (which he basically is). But in Hobo, star Rutger Hauer is deadly serious. Even though his character and the film are completely over-the-top, Hauer - in classic B-movie fashion - plays it all straight. Part of that may come from Hauer's Europeon roots - over there, action movies tend to be over-the-top and crazy without ever being ironic about it. Think of the movies of Luc Besson or Paul Verhoeven. Satirical? Sometimes. But there's also a straightforward sincerity to movies like Leon The Professional and Robocop that may even make them, at times, unintentionally funny to American audiences. HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN captures that sort of vibe - there's some very dark, satirical humor at its core, but it presents the social commentary with about the same degree of sincerity as the insane ultraviolence.

That makes for a movie that took me a little while to warm up to, but that ultimately won me over with its gleefully over-the-top insanity. The movie is flat-out nuts, but like I said, it presents just about everything at face value. The central premise - Rutger Hauer as a grizzled old homeless man who decides to clean up his city's dirty streets, one despicable criminal at a time - is a lot to take in by itself. But that premise may actually be the most banal thing about the film. Hauer's badass bum soon finds himself teamed with a gun-toting hooker with a heart of gold, pitted against an insanely evil and sadistic crime family, and, inexplicably, facing unstoppable, armor-clad demons summoned from the fiery pits of hell. Yes, you heard me. This movie starts out as being crazy, and very soon becomes *certifiable.*

Shot in extreme color and utilizing all sorts of classic B-movie camera techniques, Hobo looks like an old 70's grindhouse film with a modern, acid-washed twist. As it goes on, the action heats up and becomes increasingly, awesomely over-the-top. But the whole thing is anchored by Hauer's captivating performance. Hauer is one of those great, underutilized actors - but perhaps it's partly because he's at his best in these sorts of larger-than-life roles, aka, the kind that haven't been there in mainstream cinema over the last few decades. But man, does Hauer ever get stuff to chew (more like gnaw) on in this one.

Hobo With a Shotgun take a little while to get going, and at times, it does have the aura of a movie that's trying a little too hard to be shocking. In its quest to extend a premise tailor-made for a cool trailer into a full feature, the movie keeps throwing weird $%&# at you to keep you in a constant state of shock and awe. And some if it - because of spotty acting, off-kilter direction, iffy writing, etc. - doesn't work, and is more eye-rolling than jaw-dropping. But ultimately, the movie is a fun, freakish film that I found to be quite enjoyable.

My Grade: B+

Now, while I'm talkin' B-movies, a couple of other things that I'll mention:

- This past weekend, some friends and I gathered for our first-ever BADASS MOVIE NIGHT. A couple of incredibly badass films were watched that night, but I want to talk about one in particular: ROLLING THUNDER. This was a movie that we had been introduced to via a special screening of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair that we attended several months back at the New Beverly theater in LA. Prior to unveiling his re-cut version of Kill Bill Parts 1 and 2, the great Quentin Tarantino set the proper mood by showing us a trailer reel of revenge films that helped to inspire the creation of the Kill Bill saga. All of the films looked awesome, but one in particular stood out for its sheer badassery. And that film was Rolling Thunder.

Now, here's the insane thing. Rolling Thunder should be considered a classic, held in the same regard as movies like Taxi Driver (it's from the same writer, for one thing). It's an incredibly awesome 70's-era revenge film, starring William Devane (Sec. Heller on 24), and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie has kickass action, but it's also a fantastic character piece - a look at a man who comes back from imprisonment as a P.O.W. in 'Nam, only to find out that the America he's returned to is in some ways just as brutal and unforgiving as the war. This is a movie that any film fan should check out asap. BUT ... it's NOT AVAILABLE ON DVD. Yes, as of last year, you can order the film via MGM's pressed-to-order DVD purchase program. Okay, that's a decent first step. But this is a movie that needs the deluxe treatment. It's a movie that anyone should easily be able to check out, that should be a perennial best-seller at Best Buy or on iTunes. But, for some reason, it's been relegated to obscurity. Rolling Thunder - which I can now vouch for as one of THE most badass films of all time - is a movie that MGM, Criterion, Shout Factory, Kino - someone - needs to give a proper release to asap!

But since I'm talking about B-movies, I'll say that Rolling Thunder is one of those movies that's legit a great film, but also has some of the hallmarks of a B-movie classic. Whereas a more straight-laced action film might keep things less violent and more banal, RT is downright brutal and disturbing. It dares to go to places that other movies wouldn't. I mean, it gives Devane's psychologically-scarred Vietnam vet a hook for a hand! The movie just goes for broke, and never feels compromised or watered-down in any way possible. The people behind Rolling Thunder just give you the most badass movie they could imagine, and they aren't worried about keeping things sanitized or even 100% realistic, necessarily. It exists in a heightened reality, a dark, messed-up place - the same place as a movie like Taxi Driver. And that willingness to go outside what is realistic to make a point is what B-movies are usually willing to do. All I can say is, if you are able to find a way to see Rolling Thunder, it's a must-watch for any movie geek.

- The other movies we watched as part of our Badass Movie Night are more widely-known, but both were films I had, somehow, yet to see. Those movies were THE WARRIORS and HARD BOILED.

- Now, THE WARRIORS has a pretty huge cult following, and it's still sort of prominent in pop-culture. The movie recently enjoyed a re-released director's cut version, and Rockstar Games even did a videogame based off the film a couple of years back. Suffice it to say, it's a cheesy-yet-awesome film that I sort of laughed at while watching, but has 100% stuck with me in the days since. The idea of the film is just so far-out, and the characters so weird and imaginative, that it's been rattling around in my brain. But what makes it a B-movie classic is exactly that - the movie takes place in a strange world that is never really explained. It's a neon-lit version of New York City that's overrun with street gangs - colorfully-clad clans that come off more like teams of comic book supervillains. Is this the future? The present? Some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia? Who knows. But The Warriors doesn't bother to explain - it just exists and asks us to accept its outlandish premise and world. "Can you dig it?"

- HARD BOILED, on the other hand, is less a B-movie. It's more of a true epic - a Hong Kong police saga of crime, corruption, and double-crosses. But what makes Hard Boiled truly pop is the ultra-stylized direction of action movie maestro John Woo. Woo frames his action scenes as blood-spattered ballet, an orgiastic opera of bullets and badassery. I would say this is less a B-movie, because of its sheer epicness, big-budget production, and fully-formed characters and storyline. So ... B-movie? Not quite. Badass movie? Hells yeah.

- Now, one thing about the great B-movie classics is that there tends to be a sort of home-made, do-it-yourself spirit that makes them endearing. Even when they have a bigger budget, B-movies still tend to feel less like corporate products and more like singular passion-projects of filmmakers. Sometimes a B-movie might fall within the narrative confines of a particular genre (horror, fantasy, etc.), but sometimes, the slice n' dice mashup of genres is exactly what makes certain B-movies so cool. It's why they're the movie equivalent of rock n' roll - they're messy, weird, unpredictable, and dangerous. Hobo With a Shotgun is sort of Sex Pistols. Evil Dead is Alice Cooper-esque. Rolling Thunder is, I suppose, kind of a Neil Young. But getting back to my earlier point, the cool thing is that these are exactly the kinds of movies that a fledgling writer or director can have fun with. These are the kinds of movies that a small crew can go out and shoot, even with a low-budget. In fact, these are movies where low-budget is part of the equation - where creativity and imagination is key.


- And with that in mind, I'd like to close things out by giving a well-deserved shout-out to a little movie called PRIMITIVE. Directed by friend-of-the-blog Benjamin Cooper, Primitive is exactly what I was talking about above - a low-budget horror movie that was essentially made because all parties involved love horror flicks and creature features.

Essentially, Primitive is your classic story of a man with a monstrous id lurking inside him - a man whose subconscious rage forces him to, well, unleash the beast. It's the kind of thing that perhaps owes a tip o' the old hat to stories like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Incredible Hulk, etc. But what's cool about Primitive is that our hero doesn't *become* the beast, but actually unleashes this monstrous entity whenever even a small part of him feels a bit of resentment or hatred towards someone else. This twist on an old legend is particularly compelling, because it means that anyone could unwittingly become the target of the beast's wrath. One moment of jealousy between friends, one small spat with the girlfriend - any of these seemingly trivial incidents could lead to the monster materializing and doing the only thing it knows how - wreaking havoc and exacting deadly vengeance.

Primitive features a solid cast of up-and-comers, but the real bonus for horror fans is the presence of genre stalwart Reggie Bannister, who's appeared in countless horror flicks, from Phantasm to Bubba Ho-Tep. As the eccentric doctor who diagnoses the protagonist's rather strange condition, Bannister is a fun presence and, certainly, a scene-stealer.

The movie also features some really fun creature f/x and makeup. Again, this isn't cutting-edge CGI, but good old-fashioned man-in-suit action. The fun is in seeing the hand-crafted creature costumes, and the creativity that clearly went into making them.

Finally, I'll just mention that Primitive features several entertainingly gruesome kills - and as the movie approaches its climax, there's some pretty cool confrontations between man, woman, and monster.

In any case, it's definitely cool to look at a movie like Primitive and see what some talented and passionate horror-movie fans were able to do with relatively limited resources. It's the kind of film that will make you want to go out and shoot your own B-horror movie ... and sometimes, that's the best kind. If you want to find out more info about PRIMITIVE, check out this site:

- And there you have it, a special post dedicated to the B-movie, the most rock n' roll of all movie genres, and the type of film that perhaps best encapsulates the can-do spirit of independent cinema. Because really, without these films, we wouldn't have the Indiana Jones, the Dark Knights, or the Aliens of the world. Those movies take the raw imagination of B-movies and refine them - smooth out the rough edges. But for a look at what unbridled creativity and unfiltered imagination can do when put to film - this, my friends, is the good stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment