A lot of people don’t understand the concept of “bad” movies as genuine art and entertainment, beyond the usual MST3K fodder definitions. I’ve talked about this in past blogs, because it’s an important and difficult subject that is near and dear to me—but I “retired” from a lot of that in December of 2014. This year I’ve been getting busy with resurrecting my actual career and have been less concerned with blogging, which is why these Retro 13 posts have usually been pretty short. (This one is much longer than usual—sorry, can’t be helped this week.) The 13, however, has been a great excuse to return to these wells and sling some words about many aspects of my beloved genres. I’ve even trotted out some old essays, collected some new thoughts and (hopefully) provided a fair amount of perspective on some truly remarkable cinema.
And, well, we’re nearly done, kids.
This week’s NEON MANIACS, which you can only see at DREAD CENTRAL by clicking the links above and below, is the penultimate voyage.
Next week, we’ll say goodbye with a poster which is probably guaranteed to blow your eyes right out of your mind. Then I’ll cool it again for a while. (Though I may have a surprise or two still in the wings for those who reaaaaallly want an encore.) Having a weekly column at Dread Central has been really challenging, and I hope my humble “online art gallery exhibit” has been fun for you. We’ll move on from here to some exciting new work in horror comics, starting with my already-announced BOTTOMFEEDER and continuing with an awesome new series of comic books that many of my fans have been screaming for. More on that soon.
First, let me tell you why films such as NEON MANIACS were so important to me in the 1980s. It wasn’t because of what these films gave me. It was because of what they didn’t give me. And what they allowed me to have. This is a fairly complex equation, which I will now try to explain in the simplest possible terms. I will explain it with a story of my life.
It was January of 1988 in Houston, Texas, and I was just a month shy of “fleeing the nest” as a newly-minted 18 year old child, set ready to launch myself into the real world of adults as a struggling screenwriter and novelist. On the eve of my departure, I visited a place called EZ Video, which was a downtown hole-in-the-wall tape rental store carved off the back room of a local pool hall. It was the first video store I ever owned a membership in. I rented WAVELENGTH there for the first time. They even had a delivery service in the early years—they’d bring you a VCR and some tapes, along with beer and pizza. (This service was discontinued after their driver totaled the delivery car, the twisted remains of which remained in the parking lot of the place for years afterwards, as a grim reminder of why the really awesome shit never lasts too long.) This was my first stop for every sleazebucket horror film, low-rent science fiction epic, and even mainline classics like RETURN OF THE JEDI. The place was hardly bigger than a coin laundry. But it was magical. We saw the information age begin in this shitty dive.
It was Friday, and I was perusing the NEW RELEASE rack for something awesome. The fresh tapes had just come in, and their colorful boxes winked at me like dirty promises off a street whore in some geeky red light district just for Nerds Like Us. I’d been robbed at gunpoint already by super trashy crap with flashy packaging, like Fred Olen Ray’s BIO-HAZARD (a film which make me truly happy because of its awesome opening titles sequence and a killer Tangerine Dream-inspired music score) and Tim Kincaid’s MUTANT HUNT (a film which makes me feel dirty to this day for even thinking about), but you always wanted to be fooled in these places. You just knew that the next one would be the real winner in the bunch. You pressed on into the dark and kept smiling.
It was usually all just a terrible lie. Even big studios were having trouble reaching the new bars set by the previous year’s big monster hits, such as ALIENS, THE FLY and ROBOCOP. Witness the mediocre big budget spectacle of PREDATOR, a film universally overpraised for its technical sheen, but which adds very little to the genre in terms of originality. (Sacrilege, you say? Well, the next time you watch PREDATOR, take the Pepsi Challenge, my friends, and ask yourself: is this the REAL thing or is it just loud?) But films were a lot harder to make back then, much less something as innovative and well-conceived as ALIENS. It was the promise of another one of those that kept us alive in those days. The sheen was usually enough to keep us going. (See again: PREDATOR.) Sam Raimi had just delivered a nutty sequel to EVIL DEAD recently that was almost nothing BUT sheen. And it was glorious.
Me, I lived in the promise.
Never mind that there was usually enough crap around to get excited about—films like GALAXY OF TERROR, CRITTERS, CREATURE, FORBIDDEN WORLD (MUTANT) and XTRO, not to mention countless others. All this stuff had flashes of genuine genius strewn somewhere in the mix, and it kept our imaginations primed for The Promised Land. What was left over in these movies was a series of mistakes and compromised ideals that placed them dead-center of a spectrum reserved for amazingly surreal monster cinema, obsessed with light and noise, crazy as a shithouse rat and sleazy as an insurance salesman hocking dayglow home abortion manuals.
Each time I saw something that looked amazing in a video store, I always cross-referenced the box art with my internal catalog of Really Almost Amazing Monster Flicks (See again: PREDATOR) and used all that to make the new movie a million times in my head before the tape even went in the slot. It was an almost sure-fire recipe for disappointment and disaster every time. But, man, I made some cool fucking mind movies back then.
That was the case with CREEPOZOIDS.
As you can see, this one had balls of steel. It literally compares itself to ALIENS right up front. You always laughed when you saw a hard sell like that—but you also started hoping. Maybe THIS TIME, man . . .
I took the flashy box up to the counter to rent the thing, but as luck would have it, the film had already been checked out earlier that day. They’d just forgotten to take the display case off the rack. I can’t remember what I actually did end up renting that night, because I mostly spent the weekend making CREEPOZOIDS in my head—a lunatic mashup sci-fi horror flick about a group of badass space soldiers who travel through a dimensional gate to face down a slimy extradimensional mutant shapeshifting menace unleashed in a remote scientific outpost at the far end of the galaxy. The monsters absorb humans and infiltrate the ranks of the soldiers, ultimately causing a massive, gun-shooting, slime-slinging showdown that played in my tortured brain like John Carpenter’s THE THING meets THE WILD BUNCH on the set of STAR WARS. Obviously, this “mind movie” of mine had nothing to do with anything that I eventually saw in CREEPOZOIDS when I finally got to run the tape a week later. Though the film was much less sleazy than, say, MUTANT HUNT, and did have its own particular charms, including the awesome talents (both of them) of the great Linnea Quigley, and it was bravely directed by a kid not much older than I was at the time, nothing they could have shown me would have beaten my version. The epic monster mash I envisioned happened to be the living shit, not because I was a particularly brilliant kid or anything, but because I was a sexually frustrated five-alarm fanboy working with every imaginable resource and an unlimited budget that would have made James Cameron look like a penny miser. I ended up dropping some really awesome controlled substances on Saturday and I watched my version of CREEPOZOIDS again and again and again in my head, acting out the action, with weird alien goo flying and high-tech weapons blasting into the night.
When the sun came up the next morning, I had been reborn into a weird new place. A place where anything was possible, just by dreaming it.
This was a very profound moment in my life.
I didn’t have to rent bad monster movies anymore—I could make them up on the spot and they were always so much better than virtually anything else out there. All I had needed were these three images from the back of the video box:
Of course, that didn’t stop me from bringing home those tapes. Not long after, I saw NEON MANIACS on video for the first time, and it also set my imagination running wild. I whipped up a dazzling tour-de-force sequel that took place years after the original, with all new and over-the-top horrors and action sequences that would have cost more than Operation Desert Storm to film. (I still have that film in my mind and maybe one day I’ll actually write it down.) Not long after, in the winter of 1988, I started to work on my first novel, which was called INVASION OF THE MUTANOIDS, inspired by all I believed I had learned from movies I hadn’t actually seen. 30 years later, my novel RESURRECTION EXPRESS was praised by one particular columnist as the work of a “grindhouse auteur woking with a 200 million dollar budget.” Mission accomplished, man.
So here’s my theory about all this:
When it comes to Really Bad Movies, it’s not what you see that makes them great. It’s what you don’t see. And every so often they really are great. Sometimes you get some cool music or a nifty title sequence. That’s enough to build worlds, if your imagination is strong enough. If it isn’t strong enough . . . well, then maybe you should stick to Mystery Science 3000. But then again, I don’t think it’s all that hard for a truly intelligent person to notice the raw power and determination that so many of these films possess. It’s certainly child’s play for a weirdo like me to see why CYBORG or TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS are brilliant works of perverted art on their own terms. These films work on multiple levels. They appeal to the retards inside us and the serious connoisseurs struggling to find depth and meaning in the damnedest places. And some of these films are actually made by genuinely demented people with weird personal agendas—those are the Frank Hennenlotters and Andy Milligans and Jess Francos of the world, who are more often than not “misunderstood” by the general public. In those cases, you probably have to really know the filmmakers themselves to have an appreciation for what they do, much of which was as simple-minded and crassly commercial as any given Roger Corman film from the 1980s. But where do you draw the line? When does it stop being art and start being crap?
Well, it’s probably all art. By definition. Even a dark smear on a Texas sidewalk is art, if you look at it the right way. I once knew a guy who loved his crapy VHS bootleg collection because he thought the degradation of the picture quality from having copied and recopied the source material so many times made it look like “an old oil painting in a gallery.” He was pretty eccentric guy to be sure, but he also loved Wagner on his stereo and gourmet food in his kitchen. Alternately, there really are people out there who think that cynically-designed sleazebucket slasher films like PIECES are important entertainments worthy of serious study and examination. This is true enough, but these people get truly offended if you try to suggest any alternative viewpoint or ironic spin. Believe me. I know the names of these guys. They have only one point of view. They are rigid and unmovable. I think most of them will probably eventually go crazy listening to the sound of their own voices. Me, I’m pretty serious about this stuff—but I also have to wink and smile once in a while, as I humor that silly un-evolved drug-addled 18 year old kid inside me who truly wants to be fooled. I use this unique perspective to evolve beyond the obvious, so I can deconstruct even the genre’s most beloved works and become better at what I do as an artist. It’s either that, or you stay a kid forever. And everyone laughs at you.
And if you need real evidence of this?
Well here’s the punchline, kids:
More than 20 years after I imagined the most awesome alternate version of CREEPOZOIDS while tripping balls in my room, Hollywood actually got around to making that film. It cost more than 70 million and flopped horribly at the box office, going down in a flaming miasma of shitty reviews and bad word of mouth. It wasn’t called CREEPOZIOIDS, though.
It was called . . .
. . . wait for it . . .
This goddamn thing was nearly identical to the film I saw in my mind back in 1988, on the eve of my departure into the world. Except mine had better action sequences, a grimmer ending and nobody named The Rock in it. I think there’s an object lesson here. You do the math.
I could, after all, be completely wrong about every bit of this.
DOOM might have been a much better film if they’d put more undead mutant babies in there. Just sayin.’
Oh yeah, and nearly every cool “reimagined” film I ever came up with back then eventually found its way into my book SHOCK FESTIVAL. I was particularly fond of this one, which is basically ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK meets C.H.U.D. meets ALIENS:
I recently wrote THE UNDERGROUND TOXIC WASTE MUTANTS as a full-blown screenplay. It’s currently in development. It screams to the 1980s in a voice like a retarded mutant man-child trying damn hard to be an adult.