Perverse Comedies

Exploitation Videos 3

published in Video Age, September 1985, Melbourne

There are two major theories on the birth of comedy — the Darwin theory and the Jewish theory. The Darwin theory follows the line that as an ape, Man did pretty well for himself, but when he evolved into homo erectus it was about as farcical as an ape in a human suit. He probably should have remained an ape. Ever since, Man has tried to cover up and undercut this mistake by making jokes about his 'dumbness’ when in fact Man's most laughable aspects are to be found in what he thinks is his ‘intelligence’.

The Jewish theory is clearly documented in the Bible. Their piercing sense of irony was demonstrated at the crucifixion on Mount Calvary, when they crowned Christ ‘King Of The Jews’. It doesn't read so funny now, but I'm sure at the time they thought it was a real hoot. That same satirical sensibility has been carried on in Jewish culture for eons and oi-vehs from the Marx Brothers to Lenny Bruce to Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to the Medved Brothers. Of course the Jews also have a keen business sense, and the predominance of Jewish comedy in America does owe something to the fact that they virtually own the entertainment industry.

Considering the notoriety and popularity of Jewish comedy, this month we'll take a look at the lesser known and less appreciated Darwinian comedy, concentrating on the more perverse end of the scale and looking at those videos which most people think are either not funny or) simply sick. In other words, the better ones.

Science-fiction has been closely linked to Darwinian comedy ever since Kubrick had apes hit each other with bones. Similar neanderthal laughs can be found in Schlock (1972) (John Landis' homage to party-hire ape-suits); Tanya's Island (1980) (Alfred Sole's homage to homo eroticus); One Million Years B.C. (1966) (featuring Raquel Welch grunting in a primitive 1966 cloth bikini); and Quest For Fire (1982) (a very humorous film which illustrates Man's progress as accidental).

At the more futuristic end of the spectrum there is John Carpenter's incisive send-up of Kubrick in Dark Star (1976); the John Sayles-scripted send-up of the Star Wars sagas in Battle Beyond The Stars (1980); Galaxina (1980) with its quirky combination of sci-fi and sex, starring the late Dorothy Stratten and lightyears funnier than 2069: A Sex Oddessy; and the most esoteric and eccentric of the bunch, Deathrace 2000 (1975). Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, this stock-car sci-fi set in the fascist future turns the baroque drama of Rollerball into high-gear camp with great performances by David Carradine, Mary Woronov and Sylvester Stallone, plus way-out street machines which predate the Mad Max movies by five years.

Many a dumb filmmaker has thought the horror movies would be a cinch to parody. The result? Dumb movies like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hype (1980); Class Reunion (1982); Blood Bath At The House Of Death (1983); and Saturday The 14th (1981). Those filmmakers should have first noted a few historical antecedents like the grotesquely funny and hilariously horrific The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and the even more outrageous Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). After Vincent Price did his set of Edgar Allen Poe films for Roger Corman in the '60s, no-one would ever have thought he could top his hyper-theatrical portrayals of Poe's protagonists, but Price's characterisation of Dr. Phibes is priceless. The gory revenge, crazy set decoration and inverted humor of the Phibes films clearly influenced Paul Morrissey's direction of Blood For Dracula (1974) and Flesh For Frankenstein (1974), two and a half years later. Blood For Dracula and Flesh For Frankenstein (and all the gristle inbetween) truly live up to the cliche "over the top" as the antics, altruisms and atrocities of liver-fetishist Udo Kier are definitely the most hilarious scenes of horror you'll ever see.

An important horror-comedy is undoubtedly John Landis' An American Werewolf In London (1981). Even though the juxtaposition of horror and comedy (as opposed to their fusion) is often uneven, this film certainly catches you off-guard with its one-liners and face-gougers. A funnier film, though, is Wes Craven's strangely successful Full Moon High. Unfortunately its success lies in its script and character performance and not at the box-office, as 1981 was only capable of taking one werewolf comedy (second place was taken by Joe Dante's heavily ironic The Howling).

B-Grade horror was the subject of a comic attack in Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes which would have been great as an authentic B-Grade movie, but as a 1978 farce it heaves and groans with undergraduate humor and a contrived "Golden Turkey" mentality. A mixture of farce with absurdity makes the black-horror-comedy of Motel Hell (1980) a little more bearable but ultimately it is too heavy-handed in its style — something that never mixes well with heavy-handed content. Rory Calhoun in a pig mask chain-sawing fattened human cattle is so heavy it falls flat.

A stronger vein of absurdity flows through the blood-splattered plot of Slumber Party Massacre (1982) directed by Amy Jones. The comedy is underplayed in this slasher (or should I say driller) flick, allowing the gags to surface in a less obtrusive manner than other failed absurdist horror-comedies and uppish parodies.

But I've saved the best till last. In 1981 Charles Kaufman made Mother's Day, a film with a biting commentary on media violence framed within an equally violent story about two brothers whose sole perception of reality has been determined by their continual exposure to television, in an outback wood hut where they have been raised by their eccentric "mother".

The crimes they commit and the revenge exacted upon them by three girls on their class reunion camp-out carry an eerie comic effect due to the continual references made to the more mindless aspects of television. The film was heavily attacked when it was released because most critics failed to acknowledge the acute perception involved in constructing this uncompromising two-way tale of modern society.

Kaufman's wily wit surfaced again in When Nature Calls (1983), although this time in a more comfortable form of satire, I think. The film opens up with three "fake" trailers; (i) Baby Bullets — a gangster film starring a baby in a pram as top dog, complete with pram chases, cot scenes and foul language; (ii) Raging Bullshit — a side-splitting send-up of Scorsese's Raging Bull which in true De Niro style features more censor-bips than dialogue; and (iii) A Woman's Story—a savage send-up of Jill Claybourgh's “me-myself-l” performance in An Unmarried Woman.

The "real" film then starts, titled The Outdoorsters, and is a true Darwinian celebration ot all those jerks from the city who pile their families into camper vans and attempt to communicate with nature a la The Wilderness Family TV series. And just as you're starting to follow the perverse escapades of The Outdoorsters, an intermission sign jumps up and what follows is perhaps the most disgusting clay figure animation of cute, anthropomorphic junk-food items performing the most unspeakable acts. And then there's a community service ad for victims of the Jerry Lewis Syndrome. And then there's the interviews with the doctor played by Fred Blassie. And then ... look, you just have to see When Nature Calls for yourself to fully experience the convulsions and repulsions of Charles Kaufman's weird visions.

Weird visions continue with Krishna Shah — and don't ask me if the name's for real! The same year that Kaufman made When Nature Calls he made Hard Rock Zombies (1983), a totally gross film that perhaps goes further than what Russ Meyer was attempting with The Sex Pistols in the ill-fated Who Killed Bambi? Hard Rock Zombies takes that well-proven formula of sex/drugs/rock'n 'roll and mixes it with heaps of horror and gallons of gore. See a nice and jerky hard rock band turned into pseudo-Kiss zombies! Hear the dreadful music they play! See ex-suburbanite zombies, in a rage of anti-intellectualism, decapitate fellow shoppers! See old Adolf and Eva come out of hiding to take over the world! Hear the most ludicrous dialogue you'll ever hear short of an Ed Wood Jr. movie! Ah, you've gotta laugh — this film certainly has it all.

But Krishna Shah's 1984 film American Drive-In has even more! Set in a typical outer-city drive-in (called, appropriately, 'City Limits'), American Drive-In chronicles the events of one night's screening. And guess what film is playing — Hard Rock Zombies. In a fashion reminiscent of the comic interludes and overlays of the neglected Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), a fast-moving series of intercutting character vignettes keep the pace of American Drive-In going and the laughs coming. The comic effects are often doubled by correlations between scenes happening on the screen and scenes happening in the actual drive-in, making the concept behind this movie innovative, resourceful and original — something fairly unusual for Exploitation flicks.

So don't forget those names: Charles Kaufman and Krishna Shah. And while waiting for their forthcoming titles, check out Fast Times At Ridgemont High; Alan Arkush's Hollywood Boulevard (1976) (with Joe Dante) and Rock'n'Roll High School (1979) (with The Ramones); the bizarro sicko Wacko! (1983); and De Niro's unforgettable portrayl of Rupert Pumpkin in Scorsese's King Of Comedy (1983). Darwinian comedy is the best: forget the Jews and go for the Jerks!

Text © Philip Brophy 1985. Images © respective copyright holders