This year, as I ran to peek into my stocking, I had a terrible feeling that the lump in the bottom might not be coal — if you know what I mean.
You know, you can tell a lot about a horror movie from its shower scene. Take Psycho — classic example. Archetypal example. Watch the shower scene in Psycho, and you realize that it's beautifully-crafted, well-shot, and frightening. Yet once the scene is over, you start to realize that you didn't really see what you thought you saw. Then you start to realize the same things could be said, in broader terms, about the movie itself.
Roller-coastering on to the opposite end of the bell curve, we find the shower scene in Luigi Cozzi's Contamination. Cozzi had written his female lead with the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Caroline Munro in mind; she'd starred as Stella Starr in Star Crash, so he had every reason to believe she could be brought back as his latest Stella. And who wouldn't want to see Caroline Munro in a shower scene? Unfortunately for Cozzi, his producers insisted he cast a woman of mature years, and a more (shall we say) maternal aspect. Or, as Cozzi puts it, "ugly". Thus Cozzi ended up shooting a shower scene so chaste, so demure, so lacking in the slightest hint of forbidden flesh, that the viewer has to ask: "Why the hell am I watching this? Why was this even shot?" Which, as it happens, are the same questions most viewers ask about Contamination as a whole.
There is a shower scene in Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare. It has problems beyond the obvious, which I'll get to in time, and which make the scene a surprisingly effective metaphor for the entire flick; but for now, let me just give you a superficial description:
One of the participants is a tall blond with an enormous chest, wearing nothing but mascara. The blond looks a lot like 80's porn star Erica Boyer... only slightly less masculine.
The other participant is... his girlfriend.
Call me old-fashioned, but I find any ostensibly heterosexual love-scene in which the boy is prettier than the girl to be a little disappointing. And by an incredible coincidence, "a little disappointing" is a very apt description for the movie up until the shower scene (and "ostensibly heterosexual" comes in a close second).
What the movie becomes after the shower scene is a different matter. But I'm getting ahead of myself: you need to suffer through the first part of the movie before you can suffer through the last.1
While I'm on the subject, you know what else about this shower scene puts me in a bad mood? After I wrote this feeble attempt at a humorous introduction, it occurred to me to find out whatever happened to Erica Boyer.
You may remember (if you're a pervert like me), Boyer was a particularly aggressive and enthusiastic porn performer in the eighties and early nineties. It turns out she retired from the industry, resumed her off-screen identity as Amanda Gantt Jensen, moved back to her home state of Florida and became a much-beloved and admired member of her community.
Would you care to guess how I found out she became a much-beloved and admired member of her community? From the numerous condolences posted on-line after her tragic death. Just about a year ago as of this writing, on New Year's Eve 2009, she was struck and killed by a car driven by an off-duty policeman.
You see why the Secret Santa Roundtable is such a grueling experience? Even the goddamned throwaway jokes about this movie make me want to go curl up in a corner and sob.
We open in a rural farmhouse, where a family of terrible bit players is just getting started on their day. Mom is in the kitchen whipping up breakfast for her husband and young son; she's just called out to the menfolk to come down and eat when she feels a subtle shift in the nature of reality — as though the camera of existence had simultaneously pulled back and zoomed in. Dismissing her momentary unease, she goes to the refrigerator. As she starts to open it, she fails to notice the Zuuly red glow coming from within.
Dad pauses in mid-shave when he hears Mom screaming in the kitchen. The deep globbering growl in the background no doubt concerns him, too. He runs downstairs — only to find his wife has disappeared. The fridge is sitting quietly now, but the stove door is vibrating (the warranty on the appliances expired yesterday, that's my guess). Dad goes to open the stove — and out leaps a gore-crusted Living Skeleton...
At the top of the stairs sits the little boy, paralyzed with shock over the poverty of the special effects budget. This makes him easy prey for the flensed ghoul from the oven, barely mobile though it is. Of course, we don't actually see the clumsy puppet attack. We just hear the boy scream, and cut to the house's exterior.
With all three members of the household apparently devoured, the Evil Menace is free to fulfill its diabolical plan... which (the POV camera during the credits shows us) is to run up and down the stairs, walk on the furniture, and jump up on the bed. Apparently Evil is a bichon frisé. I've always known the reverse was true, but this? This comes as a surprise.
Fast forward about 15 years into the future, to the mid-80's: we see a large van thundering down the highway. Then we (ahem) slow-forward several minutes into the future, in real-time, as the van continues, em, thundering down the highway... if "thundering" is really the right word for "progressing safely under the speed limit in good light and moderate traffic".
The driver of the van is a burly guy with wild blond 80's-hair; there are handcuffs hanging from the rear-view mirror. Clearly whoever's in the van is bad-ass. They even have a license plate holder that proclaims USA - 1! Hell, yeah, baby! Hell y— wait a minute. Are those Ontario plates?
I'm getting mixed signals here.
The van is transporting a heavy metal band called The Tritonz. At first, I thought that this was a reference to that dissonant interval the "tritone", also known as the diminished fifth or the augmented fourth, which is known as "diabolus in musica" — the devil in music — because it sounds like hell. And why wouldn't I think that? After all, the Devil has been crucial to heavy metal bands' identities since the beginning of the genre... almost as crucial as umlauts (cän't förget thë umlauts!). But I was completely mistaken: they're called the Tritonz because their leader is named Jon Triton. That's all.2
The incidental music is also credited to The Tritonz. Considering what happens to the Tritonz during the course of the film, this is remarkable. Actually, "The Tritonz"'s music is provided by Jon-Mikl Thor's band THOR.
Jon Triton (played by real-life rocker/terrible speller Jon-Mikl Thor [Zombie Nightmare]) is an agreeable guy who leads the band with a cheerful, first-among-equals attitude. He's travelling with his steady girlfriend, the aptly-named Randy...
but he seems to be ignoring her physical needs out of single-minded devotion to his music. The other members of the band include:
Rodger, bass guitar and backing vocals, who has just married his sweetheart Mary and is taking a working honeymoon with his beloved bride. Mary not only wears pearls to dinner (see above), she even knits baby clothes during Rod's rehearsals. She is so un-hip she makes Shelley Long look like... well, Erica Boyer.
Stig, the drummer, who pretends to be Australian but sometimes forgets his accent;
Max, guitar and vocals; and Dee Dee, keyboards, who has a thing for her bandmate Max but seems to shy to do anything about it.
Also along for the ride are Gwen, Stig's bitchy girlfriend...
...and Phil, the band's manager and recording engineer. Phil acts and dresses like the Wacky Sidekick from bad sitcom: imagine Gary Burghoff dressed as Boy George, complete with hat and dangly earring — though I think the "Archie Club" jacket is a fashion statement that's entirely Phil's:
You know what his line is here?
"You guys never let me get to the 'but'!"
This group — I hesitate to call them a motley crew — is headed to the remote farmhouse we saw in the movie's opening: after the mysterious deaths of the family that owned the place, the farm was sold to somebody in the record industry, and now the barn has been converted into a state-of-the-art recording studio.
Phil and Jon have decided to record here because it's miles away from the distractions of the city. There's no phone, no television... nothing to distract them from the job at hand, which is to record 10 minutes of "new good material" for their next album in the next month (I know what you may be thinking here: thirty days to record ten good minutes? What can I say? John Triton is an optimist. Savor this moment, though: it's the only concession to realism the movie makes).
"But why Canada?" moans Stig.
That's the cue for Canadian Jon Mikl Thor to step in and say, with perfect local pronunciation:
"'Cause Toronno is where it's happening, man!
The music, the film industry, the Arts...!"
... which would be very inspiring, were it not for the very next words out of his mouth:
"The only way to get you guys to rehearse
is to lock you in a place where you have
no distractions: nothing to do but play!"
... which casts the Toronto cultural scene in a much different light.3
If this little plug for Toronto seems like an insert... it is. Thor and director John Fasano mention in the DVD commentary that the Canadian film commission insisted it be added.
Phil goes off to collect the house keys from Carl the handyman (played by the actual owner of the house and studio). Carl, despite being the caretaker for the recording studio, is a clueless outsider. Rather than hand over the keys, he goes into a long, supposedly comical description of all the famous musicians who have come to record here. Being a clueless outsider, he gets all the details wrong. He tells Phil that the record company RCS ("A," corrects Phil) had Alice Blooper ("Cooper," says Phil) and Bob Stewart ("Rod... the keys?") all come here to use the new 24-track studio.
Unfortunately, all the details Carl gets wrong... are wrong.
None of this is what a clueless outsider to the world of popular music would say. Trust me on this: if anybody knows how to write for the clueless musical outsider, it's me: I spent my childhood forbidden from listening to any popular music. But "Alice Blooper"? Of all the possible jokes they could come up with about Alice Cooper, they chose that? Even as a kid, I knew who Alice Cooper was — he'd been on the Muppet Show in 1978, when I was eleven — but even if I hadn't, I doubt I'd ever have called him "Alice Blooper" by mistake. Why not something like this: "Alice Cooper was here — boy, I'll bet she'd look a lot prettier without all that makeup." Or "Alice Cooper was supposed to record here, but the only person who showed up was some guy named Vince. Naturally I threw him out." Or "Alice Cooper recorded here — he kept asking if we had any chickens in the barn. I wonder why?" All admittedly pretty bad, but better than "Alice Blooper".
So, OK: a heavy metal band is about to come face-to-face with the Forces of Evil in a house at the Edge of Hell. Great. Sounds on paper like the makings of a decent horror movie.
But... look at these people: we have a frontman who's polite and well-mannered, and who's too serious about his music to be distracted by sex. We have another band member settling down into happy domesticity with his straight-laced suburbanite wife. We have two other band members nursing bashful junior-high-school crushes on each other. And we have a manager who is about as far away from the stereotype of the Heavy Metal Manager as it's possible to go.
What kind of metal band is this, anyway?
For crying out loud, we've been expecting macho posturing, black clothing, inflated egos, trashed accommodations, groupies in various stages of undress and intoxication, and lots of songs about Death — or Satan — or Cthulhu — maybe even an old Norse thunder god; at a minimum, that's what we'd expect. But what do we get? An orgy of drug-free monogamy! Cheerful, upbeat recording sessions featuring cheerful, upbeat tunes with cheerful, upbeat lyrics! Phil the Manager's home-cooked meals4
I should point out that Phil's dinner features the appearance of the same can of peanuts that we saw in the prologue, which has been sitting there for the last 15 years:! These Tritonz are so goddamned wholesome they make me sick. The closest we get to wild partying is Phil, Mary, Gwen and Dee Dee rocking out to the radio as they wash the dishes — though Dee Dee, being the girl, is the only band member helping with the chores, so I guess we have a little macho posturing going on.
So maybe this whole movie can be written off as hallucinations brought on by ergot poisoning.
Part of the explanation for this (and most of the rest of the content of Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, especially the ending) is that Jon Mikl Thor isn't a terribly dark individual. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, and for better or worse, that quality of "niceness" follows him into his attempts at horror films. Hey, even the undead character he played in Zombie Nightmare was a heroic zombie. A bigger part of the explanation might be that Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare was filmed not long after the Parents Music Resource Center was formed. More than half of the so-called "filthy fifteen" songs the PMRC declared objectionable were by heavy metal bands, and the subjects the PMRC wanted to regulate (if not expunge from music entirely) were precisely the subjects metal bands thrived on — sex, violence, drug & alcohol use, and the occult. The Tritonz may be intended, at least in part, as a satirical response to the PMRC: a heavy metal band made up of pleasant naïfs, who were easy prey for real live demons.
The fact remains: these are the people we have to spend the rest of the film with. It would be a little more tolerable if any of them could act worth a damn. Thor himself is a pretty lousy actor, but at least he has a natural presence in front of the camera. The rest of the characters range from wooden (Max, Dee Dee, Rod) to irritating (Phil, Phil and again Phil) to absolutely fucking hopeless (Gwen). What makes the movie all the more infuriating, then, is that the direction and photography are all reasonably good — far better than you'd expect from a $53,000 made-in-Canada horror flick.
Not only are we going to have to put up with the world's most improbably affable metal band, we're also going to have to listen to them perform. After the stirring dishwashing sequence, we're treated to the Tritonz's first rehearsal.
Like most monster fodder in a low-budget horror film, each member of the band is given one basic personality trait — not to establish them as characters, but to help us tell them apart as they're killed off. Dee Dee the keyboard player's Main Characteristic is that she is perky. And no, I don't mean her attitude. A Canadian barn that's been turned into a recording studio is bound to have some cold drafts in mid-winter... you see what I mean? No? Well, then, perhaps I should have said she has two personality traits. And the camera focuses on them obsessively during the recording session scenes.
The first song the band records is "We Live to Rock", one of those typical heavy metal anthems about how great heavy metal anthems are. Depending on your mood, you could say it's either a celebration of the legendary camaraderie between metalheads of all races, colors and creeds; or you could say it's embarrassingly narcissistic. Either way, it's a pretty generic song. I wrote down some of the lyrics, in case I felt I needed to reference them; but reading them over after having watched the movie two or three times, I found I had a hard time remembering the tune. It's not all that bad a song, by any means... it's just not particularly memorable. I guess that's a good thing: its earworm potential is near-zero.
It's during the recording session that we get a glimpse of the little monsters that have become the trademark of Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare. Director John Fasano refers to them in the commentary as Gibsons, after the man who designed them. I prefer to call them the One-Eyed Willies. They're hand-puppets: small, bulbous and pink. Some of them are bald, while others have little tufts of hair. They sometimes dribble a white, viscous fluid. They look like... ummm... they look like... let me put it this way: remember Beeker from "The Muppet Show"? Yeah? Well, if you ever wondered if Beeker was circumcised, this is the movie for you.
Phil is up in the control booth. We can guess at his effectiveness as a producer by the fact he spend most of the rehearsal thrashing his head and playing air guitar, all while wearing his headphones around his neck. Thinking of Gibsons — Haynes, that is — did you know that the Butthole Surfers came to hate having Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones as their producer? He spent so much time and took such loving care to mix and balance their album "Independent Worm Saloon" that it became their clearest, cleanest-sounding album to date. And clear, clean sound was exactly what the Butthole Surfers were trying to avoid. Well, Phil here is no John Paul Jones.
While Phil is playing fanboy and completely ignoring the 24-track setup in front of him, he's also too wrapped up in fantasy to notice the One-Eyed Willie that's snuck up to the booth with him. The little monster proceeds to... there's no other word for it... ejaculate some kind of glop into Phil's coffee cup:
Whereupon Phil takes a swig, decides it doesn't taste too bad, and goes on playing air guitar without the slightest interruption. I wish I could say this came as a surprise, but... this is Phil, after all.
Now, in the middle of all this musical and extramusical spoo, Gwen — remember Gwen? Stig the non-Australian drummer's bitchy main squeeze? — Gwen becomes so bored that she decides to make some trouble. She distracts Stig by flashing him, oh, about half an inch of collarbone. Stig is apparently a collarbone fetishist, since this tiny glimpse of flesh sends him into a trance that turns the world around him into a sonic blur. His concentration broken, he manages to break a drumstick on the final cymbal crash.
No problem, says Phil, bounding down from the booth. He's brought a whole box of extra sticks along. He'll just pop into the basement to get a new pair.
That's right: one of our pieces of demon bait is about to go off alone. This is the cue — finally! — for the various evil spirits in the house to start preying on the unsuspecting mortals.
The problem is, they do their preying in strangely unfocused, downright schizophrenic ways:
En - er - gy
The second verse give us these memorable lyrics:
When I am dead on my feet
... where, presumably, she gives him his teddy bear and reads him a nice story.
Thor, in the DVD commentary, expresses some frustration that this song never really took off and became popular. That could be because it sounds more like a sports drink commercial than a love song. Then again, Thor is also a body builder, so maybe it's all the same thing to him. Unless, of course, "Energy" is a Cock Rock metaphor for the family joules5
Ω my god, that not only Hz, it MHz. W was I thinking, making such a reVing pun?!?
It's after the rehearsal that demon Stig takes care of Gwen in ways she never expected. This brings us back to our list of grisly demises:
Jon Triton is all alone in the barn/studio, starting to sketch a new song called "Edge of Hell", when he's interrupted: first by a particularly phallic Willie, who gets his hand crushed by Jon's Coke can; and then by a sort of snaky creature with two long claws and a toothy beak. The beak monster launches itself at Jon, shouting Hoo-ray! — seriously, Hoo-ray! — but Jon, apparently oblivious, chooses just that moment to retrieve his dropped pencil, and the monster lands on the floor with a sad little plop.
Obviously, having been foiled so effectively, there's no chance of Willie or the Beak attacking again. That's the cue for possessed-Randy to come slinking into the room. "Randy" tries to confront Jon with the fact that all his friends are dead — that the van is gone — that there's no escape, and now they're doomed. Jon refuses to believe a word of it, insisting that everybody's fine, and that the van is out front as usual. With each of Jon's blasé denials, "Randy" gets more and more frustrated, until finally she shouts:
"You haven't been listening to me:
I told you they were dead...
and so... am... I!!!"
And in a flash of light, "Randy" reveals her true form as... the Devil!
This brings us, at long last, to the Twist Ending.
When it comes to revealing Twist Endings, I'm always faced with a difficult decision. Often there's a particular point I'd like to make about the movie that requires familiarity with the whole story. So: what should I do? Should I "spoil" the plot for people who haven't seen the movie, by revealing the ending? Or should I sacrifice what's often the main point of my review in order to allow the viewers to experience the surprise, just as I experienced it?
It's a tough balance to strike. It's especially difficult when I feel I need to respect the intentions of the dirOH, FUCK IT: HE'S AN ANGEL, OK?! JON TRITON IS ACTUALLY A FUCKING ARCHANGEL, AND NONE OF THE PEOPLE IN THE BAND EVER EVEN EXISTED. IT WAS ALL JUST A TRAP TO LURE SATAN OUT INTO THE OPEN.
There: did you hear that? That enormous BOOM!, as the whole plot of the movie came crashing down? No? I guess it was drowned out by the sound of MY HEAD EXPLODING.
I first watched this movie on my laptop in a hotel in Oklahoma City, and I believe my dogs heard my cry of outrage half a continent away. Of all the stupid, stupid ways to conclude a monster flick, this one has got to be the biggest cheat of all.
I don't know what offends me most: is it the fact that human souls are now apparently so empty that demons can't tell the difference between real ones and fake ones ("We've replaced these souls with Folgers' Crystals... let's see what happens!")? Is it that I've struggled against bad screenwriting to find one tiny morsel of empathy for these characters, only to find my efforts wasted? Or is it this:
DEVIL: But your woman... the others: your band, your groupies! What of them?
Yes, that's it; that's what gets me angriest. Not only do they throw in one of the lamest Twist Endings I've ever seen, they use that Twist Ending to blame horror movie clichés for the lousy first two thirds of the movie!
And as if this wasn't bad enough, the Twist ushers in the big climactic fight between the Archangel Triton and the puppet Devil. If you thought Jon-Mikl Thor couldn't act as a mortal — with his clothes on — then you're in for a shock. I'll let the screen shots speak for themselves:
I'd have paid more attention to the battle, but I was a little distracted. I couldn't get one particular thought out of my head: If everybody else, including Randy, was a figment of Triton's imagination... then what was the Archangel really doing in the shower just now?
Which brings me back to my original contention: you can tell a lot about the nature of a horror film by its shower scene.
I've never been particularly interested in Cock Rock, but I'd always thought its guiding principle of Cock was much like the Spirit of Christmas, i.e.: that it was better to give than to receive. But something strange happens when you twiddle the knob of hypermasculinity up to eleven (though I suppose "burying the needle" is a bad choice of metaphor here): you end up with the same sort of exaggerated idea of maleness that's often celebrated in homoerotic art. That is, you end up with this:
... a sweaty muscleman in eyeliner and a metal jock strap, wiping demon goo off his chest. Which, when you combine it with a horde of explicitly penis-shaped monsters, explains why "ostensibly heterosexual" is my second choice of descriptor for this movie. The fact that Jon-Mikl Thor went on to found a new band called Thor and the Ass Boys suggests that he gets the connection, too, and sees the humor in it.
Patton Oswalt makes a point like this in one of his stand-up routines, but goes on to say this:
...the one recurring motif in these videos
that I wish would come back were [sic]
the bands that could rock so hard
they could change the physical properties of things!
... which sounds to me like he hasn't seen Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare. If he ever saw that Twist Ending, I think he might change his mind.
There's one person, though, who should never, ever be allowed to see Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, and that's M. Night Shyamalan. Archangel Triton preserve us — it might give him ideas.
During the recording of the DVD commentary for Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, Fasano and Thor joked about how they'd like to do get a million-dollar budget to re-do the movie... and them make exactly the same movie, with the same lame puppet devil, just out of sheer cussedness. It was a joke then; but somehow the idea must have infected Fasano and Thor, because in 2005 (nearly twenty years after the original) they got involved with a sequel called Intercessor: Another Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare. Except the sequel wasn't made with a million dollars. Or even $50,000. Or even fifty thousand pennies, by the look of it.
And here's where the true evil genius of Andrew Borntreger comes shining through. I'll bet he knew there was a sequel to this sorry film, a sequel so awful it makes the original look like Singin' in the Rain. He knew, he must have known, that once I found out about that dreadful sequel, I'd have to seek it out and review it — that is, inflict the worst Secret Santa-inspired pain on myself. Well, his diabolical plan has worked. The DVD of Intercessor was delayed a little by the demands of the holiday season, and by international HAZMAT restrictions... but now the review is up.
So before we get to the next chapter in the Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare saga, let me leave you all with this:
I rest my case. In the words of the Hieratic Head of Jon-Mikl Thor: