Saturday, November 29, 2014

Candide on Speed: The Pretty Peaches Trilogy

Even in the wild wild west days of adult filmmaking, few directors were as bold and frankly, at times, batshit, as Alex de Renzy. Outre is a classier and equally accurate word to use, with de Renzy's work being interesting, talented, sleazy, exploitative and rarely boring. A fine example of this is his “Pretty Peaches” trilogy, starting with 1978's original “Pretty Peaches.”

If one was to go by the original poster art, featuring a lifelike drawing of the film's star, Desiree Cousteau, looking like a curvy Kewpie doll in a cream colored teddy, you could easily assume that “Pretty Peaches” was another light-as-air adult sex comedy. Which is sort of true, but then again, this is a comedy by Alex de Renzy, so keep that remembrance sealed tight in your cranium.

The film begins with our titular Peaches (Cousteau) driving in a jeep and heading towards her father, Hugh's (John Leslie), wedding to her lovely, new stepmother, Lilly (Flower). Peaches, after several shots of hard liquor, gets jealous of not getting her daddy's attention, and she drives off in a huff. In fact, she leaves in such a huff that she ends up having an accident out in the country, leaving her physically unharmed but unconscious. Whether or not you believe in constructs like luck or fate, you will soon realize that if such things do exist, then our heroine has apparently done something so hideous on a cosmic level that she ends up being put through a series of misadventures that will start to read less like Penthouse Forum and more like the Personals in Nugget. Don't believe me? Keep reading. 

John Leslie & Flower. The happy newlyweds.

Desiree Cousteau as Peaches. Looking none too happy.

While she is passed out, two young cads who had seen Peaches earlier at the gas station while dealing with a seat sniffing gas station clerk, stumble upon our beautiful and knocked out heroine. Kid (Joey Silvera) and his friend at first try to help. However, despite his friend being nervous, Kid immediately starts feeling her up and quickly graduates to mounting Peaches, who awakens right after the attack. In addition to essentially being raped back into consciousness, she also has a wicked case of amnesia. And if you're picturing the old school Conan O'Brien character, Clive Clemmons, waving the devil horns and playing electric guitar while a British voice screams out “Inappropriate!!!”, then give your brain a high five because it is so right.

Joey Silvera (Kid) & friend.

After the two try to run off with the amnesiac’s van, she ends up tagging along and temporarily moving in with them. That scenario alone sounds like the most demented 70's sitcom plot to have emerged out of the first several stratus of Hell. Still riddled with amnesia, she tries to find work, which leads to her getting an enema that is the Fleet equivalent to Vesuvius, in an often-censored scene, as well as being violated in a lesbian gang-bang that plays out like a Mack Sennett riot with gyrations, genitals and one harrowingly sized dildo. Things get slightly brighter when she connects with a seemingly nice shrink (Paul Thomas.) They make tender love and then, as a romantic gesture, he brings her to one insane-o swing party which quickly turns into a huge oily mess of bodies. Little does Peaches know that daddy Hugh and his new bride will bet there too. Will she get her memory back before something really life-altering and de Renzian happens?

“Pretty Peaches” pulls off some sort of strange alchemy where despite all of the depravity you are witnessing, the tone never veers off its screwball comedy path. It is way lighter than it should be, which make it all the more compelling. A perfect example of this is when Kid sends Peaches to meet his “Uncle Percy,” who is a “Doctor.” This Doctor drags her into a hidden bathroom and after borderline accosting her, he offers her a strange solution for amnesia. All in the form of an enema bag. Peaches immediately says “N.O! No.” His response? “Don't you want to be somebody?” It is that blurred line where hilarity and damaged have the most awkward make-out session ever. Even better are some of the performances, from the eternally solid John Leslie to the underrated Flower, but this is Desiree Cousteau's show all the way. Her sweet face and curvy body rendered her a Betty Boop for the 70's, but with an “I Love Lucy” styled delivery. Nowhere is that more defined than in “Pretty Peaches.” Cousteau's performance is fun to watch and meringue-lite enough to keep you from calling your own sleazy-shrink.

Siobhan Hunter as Peaches in Pretty Peaches 2
Little under 10 years later, de Renzy returned to this singular universe with, what else, “Pretty Peaches2.” In lieu of a continual storyline from the first film, the cycle is rebooted with young Peaches (Siobahn Hunter) having a sexual curiosity that is matched only by her pie-eyed naivete. Her domineering mother, Eunice (Tracey Adams, who looks as much like a “Eunice” as Bryan Ferry looks like a “Bubba”), is not much of help, with her making incidental cockblocking a borderline profession. This starts with Peaches jock boyfriend Tommy (Peter North), whom Eunice ends up forcing to have sex with her via knife point. (The lady does not mess around!)

Tracey Adams as Peaches' Mother
Beyond frustrated, Peaches goes to have a heart to heart with her father, Stanley (Hershell Savage). He encourages her to go out and explore the world on her own. She does just that and while hitchhiking, gets picked up by a trucker (Buck Adams.) But before she can lose her flower to a man who probably reeks of black beauties and Red Sovine tapes, a door-to-door hooker (!) (Jeanette Littledove) pops by and they quickly start to knock boots. Peaches watches with rapt fascination but never gets directly involved, which might be the result of the one synapse in her pretty but well ventilated head that dictates common sense. Losing your virginity in a three-way with a strange trucker and the no-tell-motel version of a lot lizard is an ill-advised thing, not unlike having unprotected carny sex while a bible salesman watches. (Now there's a movie for you!)

Peaches soon reaches her destination of San Francisco, where she stays at the house of her Uncle Howard (Ron Jeremy), his newish wife (Ashley Welles) and his dorky son (Billy Dee.) This side of her father's family are all WAY too familiar with each other, to the point where she would be safer back with the trucker and his dollar-a-dance hooker. While staying there, she meets both her uncle's exotic maid, Crystal (Melissa Melendez) and the superbly eccentric “Granny” (Jamie Gillis.) Yes, you read that correctly. Jamie Gillis is in grandma drag and yes, it is as wrong and amazing as you think it would be. Granny has Peaches don a skimpy teddy that is all the rage in France while schooling her on cleaning techniques. Soon, the big bad wolf comes out and after telling Peaches to keep the fact that she's a horny dude a secret, though no one on the “outside” is aware, Granny shows her the art of physical love.

Buck Adams and Janette Littledove

The wrongest family dinner EVER

After that, Peaches ends up in Chinatown, as her parents go to Uncle Howard's. While trying to find their daughter, they end up getting sidetracked by the ick-ick-icky family dynamic. Crystal ends up leaving and taking Peaches to “The Master” (also Ron Jeremy), where more education of the DNA exchanging occurs. But there is one more surprise in store for our heroine, all in an unlikely and yet, oddly expected form.

Granny....what big eyes you have...Jamie Gillis as Granny.

Melissa Melendez as the mysterious Crystal with Peaches.
While “Pretty Peaches 2” lacks the screwball-comedy-from-Hell vibe of the original, it does make up for it with some strange plot decisions and terrific camera work. This is one well-lensed film and on top of that, there are some good performances here, namely from Savage, Adams and especially, Gillis, who completely steals the show as the lascivious “Granny.” One would be hard pressed to think of a better “big bad wolf” than Jamie Gillis. Tracy Adams, who was often underused as an actress, has such a strong presence that she easily overshadows Siobahn Hunter. (Whom she was only older than by about 6 years. What is this? Hollywood?) Hunter does look lovely here and in the spirit of fairness, it's not like she is given much to do other than look pretty, bat her wide eyes and get busy. 

DeRenzy ended up having one more “Peaches” film in him and in 1989, he directed “Pretty Peaches3: The Quest.” Returning from the last film is Tracey Adams as Peaches' mother, though her daughter is played this time around by super-curvy Keisha. For all intents and purposes, pretend that the last film didn't happen since this version of Peaches, while equally na├»ve as her predecessor is less concerned about sex and more focused on her spiritual journey. (The titular “Quest.”) The fact alone that this is an Alex de Renzy film dealing with spirituality is pretty astounding.

Case in point, after being disturbed by her daughter having strange and erotic dreams, including one where two men claw through several pairs of tights and hosiery to get to a friend of Peaches, her mother arranges an appointment with a therapist. With some vague echoes of the original Peaches and her luck with salacious doctors, this incarnation goes to meet Dr. Thunderpussy (Rachel Ryan), who does exactly to her patient what you would expect someone with such a name would do. (Was Doctor LightningCervix too subtle?) 

However advantageous, it is this encounter that sends our heroine on her journey. Will young Peaches find what she is looking for or only get used and chewed up in the process? “Pretty Peaches 3,” while not quite as well shot as the 2nd one or as bizarro as the first, does stand out for a number of reasons. For starters, it's a weirder animal, with some fairly funny and acidic commentary on religion in general. Whether it is a sleazy, Swaggart-like televangelist (more on him in a minute), lesbian “nuns,” a yuppie New Age huckster (played to perfection by Jon Martin) or a Ray Ban wearing, “omm-ing” phony-guru, there is little chance for redemption or personal growth in this opportunistic world. The film's surprise ending is further proof of this. It would be heavy stuff if this film wasn't so goony and fun.

Lesbian Nuns....sort of.

The fantastic Jon Martin in intense yuppie-guru mode.

Mike Horner....Ommmming

Speaking of fun, for starters there is Jamie Gillis as Reverend Billy Bob, crying on air when he's not running from the authorities or getting sidetracked by pleasures of the more Earthy variety. The image of Gillis in a white suit that is way too tight and wearing a cross the size of one of Rod Rooter's wind-chime-sized medallions is one that borders on the life-affirming. It is one of those moments where you can say, “You had me at Jamie Gillis playing a televangelist.” 

Jamie Gillis as a teary eyed Televangelist
Keisha is surprisingly likable and warm in the title role, making her seem less cartoony than Siobahn Hunter's version. (Though Cousteau's Lucille Ball-esque performance is still miles ahead of both.) In some ways, she has more in common with the Cousteau version, since sex is something she is not so much seeking out as it is something that happens to find her. In a non-sex role, Jack Baker, whose resume ranged from “Happy Days” and “Kentucky Fried Movie” to “New Wave Hookers,” pops up, making the film instantly even better. Baker was an incredibly talented actor who really deserved a bigger career then he received but he always brightened up everything he was in. This is no exception. Mike Horner also gets a special nod for being really, really funny. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention film legend Richard Pacheco turning up in a small non-sex cameo role as the most glorious wino in recent memory. 

Peaches (Keisha) meets the world's most awesome wino (the ebullient Richard Pacheco)
The original “Pretty Peaches” was only available uncut via gray market sources for years in the US, but thanks to the untiring and dedicated folks at Vinegar Syndrome, it is, along with the two sequels, are available, uncut and looking better than ever. The original is now on Blu Ray and has some incredible supplements, including rare footage of an interview with de Renzy himself. There are also some great trailers, featuring one of my own personal favorites ever, “Babyface 2.” If this means that Vinegar Syndrome are releasing it too, you know I will be doing my own personal happy dance. (For the best article written on that title, please check out Gore-Gore Girl's fabulous article right here.) As for the trilogy itself, it is a fun adult peek into cinematic chaos bordering on the surreal. It's not for everyone but if you are that person that is open to it, you will love it.

Copyright 2014 Heather Drain

Monday, November 10, 2014

Say it Again! Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy!

There is something so undeniably captivating about a magnificent disaster. It's the same kind of charisma and fear that you see in riots and car crashes. One part horror and one part pure human magnetic curiosity, both coming together to make you turn your head and aim your gaze straight into the wreckage. This is everything I felt and more when I realized that I wanted to, scratch that, needed to see the 1980 Robert Downey Sr. film, Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy.

It all started when I picked up a pristine copy of the vinyl soundtrack at a local flea market about a couple of months back. Unlike more famous soundtracks of early 80's comedies, I was shocked at how crazy solid it was. Case in point, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sure, it had Oingo Boingo, but it also had Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffet. Up the Academy, on the other hand, had Blondie, Ian Hunter and The Modern Lovers. Even the Sammy Hagar track is pretty good. After playing the album dozens of times, it planted the seed of car crash compulsion. First I researched it. I had known beforehand that the film had bombed at the box office and there were some kind of legal actions related to it.

This was an understatement.

The combination of a live action film tied with one of the greatest and most irreverent humor mags to have ever come out of these shores was a brilliant least on paper. Add to the mix a brilliant underground film maverick in the form of the man that gave the world Putney Swope, Pound and Greaser's Palace, Robert Downey Sr and it's a no brainer. Again, on paper. Throw in a mixed cast that included some young newcomers as well as notable actors like Antonio Fargas, Barbara Bach, Tom Poston and the eternally marvelous Ron Leibman as the main villain along with the aforementioned killer soundtrack and it was sure to be an ace in the deck. So what went wrong?

The first cracks appeared back n the pre-production process, when the script was sent to Mad publisher Bill Gaines. According to an interview that appeared in the Comics Journal, he liked the script as a whole but found some things offensive and requested that certain changes be made. However the changes that Gaines was promised never happened and the end result ended up muddled. To the extent that he ended up paying $30,000 for Warner Brothers to remove any references to Mad, including the appearance of Alfred E. Neuman, on both the cable television print, as well the domestic home video cut. Mad even did a parody called “Mad Magazine Resents Throw Up the Academy.” Adding further to the hot mess factor was actor Ron Leibman, who is the biggest adult character in the film, requesting his name be removed from the film and any related promotional materials.

So, knowing all of this before going into the film, I was prepared for the worst. Like Fraternity Vacation bad. However, the end result, while admittedly uneven, is not the worst thing in the world. The plot centers on three kids whom, due to assorted delinquent behavior, are sent to the Weinberg Military Academy. It's there that they encounter the motley crew of academic faculty, that include a blind barber, a pederast dance instructor (Tom Poston !?) and a weapons expert whose radiant and extremely tan d├ęcolletage belongs to Barbara Bach, sporting the weirdest accent that sounds like Cat on a Tin Roof with a dash of Perini Scleroso. The film's real star and the thorn in our young protagonists' side is one Major Vaughn Liceman (Ron Leibman).

Liceman, a former student of Weinberg and happy participant in the My Lai Massacre (yes, that is part of a joke in the film), tries to be the boys' friend which includes spying, assorted racist comments aimed at Hash, the Middle Eastern student and barking out “Say it Again!” anytime he wants to emphatically stress the importance of saying “Sir” at the end of a sentence. Further proof of the amazingness of this villain is that for the first part of the movie, his entrance is always signified by a cool gust of wind and The Stooges “Gimme Danger!”

The boys, headed by Oliver (Hutch Parker), plot revenge after Liceman obtains Polaroids of the young lad in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend, Candy (Stacey Nelkin). Why is that particularly a big deal? Well, the reason Oliver ended up at Weinberg in the first place was due to him getting Candy knocked up, much to the horror of his politician father. One of the bits of satire in the film that halfway works is the fact that Oliver's dad 's campaign hinges on a staunch anti-abortion stance, meanwhile Candy is quickly sent to the abortion clinic before departing to Butch Academy for Women. (If you're groaning, don't worry, I am groaning just typing that last part out.) Well, Oliver's friends help him bust out to go “visit” Candy at her nearby academy for ten minutes, which is just enough time to shake some action.

So, if the photos are exposed, then Oliver's dad's campaign is jeopardized, as well as Oliver's chances of getting his dream car. Add in a subplot involving a fourth student who shows up after setting fire, literally, to his last school and the film goes from already ridiculous to wholly head scratching. Case in point? The strains of Lou Reed's “Street Hassle” intros a scene of the boys doing a “proper” eating exercise in the mess hall. Great song but talk about inexplicable usage. I'm surprised Suicide's “Frankie Teardrop” wasn't used during one of the fart gags. 

Figuring turnabout is fair play, the gang enlist Candy to seduce Liceman explicitly so they can jump in and take some incriminating photos of their own. The plan actually goes without a hitch, with Liceman and the gang using an upcoming soccer match between students and the faculty to settle the score. The best part of the ending is the surreal looping of Liceman running after the gang as they drive away, with each loop beginning with the audio of him yelling out “Play it again!” As if it couldn't get any weirder, around the second to last loop, the camera zooms in closer to reveal the figure of Alfred E. Neuman standing at the side of the road waving and then shrugging as a “What, me Worry?” word balloon pops up. Well, when I say Alfred E. Neumann, what I really mean is what appears to be a child wearing a beautifully executed though moderately unsettling mask created by SFX wizard Rick Baker. The end result of this is nothing short of absolute deviltry, though I'm sure Satan had his name taken off the credits too. 

 Up the Academy has three incredibly strong things going for it. First and foremost is Ron Leibman. The man, who is rock solid in everything he graces, is absolutely majestic here as the Southern milatoid with a penchance for repetition, tying girls up with rope and using “Tickle ya ass with a feather?” as a come on. If they had cast anyone else, the film's watchability would go way, way down. He's charismatic and hilarious, with one of the highlights being the whole seduction scene with Candy. He plays it off so perfectly, right down to doing front clap push ups while she is slipping into something more comfortable. (Which is a belly dancing outfit. Something a random high school aged girl staying at a military academy would happen to have?) His performance outsmarts the script by 800 miles, to the point where I wish he would have left his name in the credits, since he is golden here.

The second is the whole scene with an atrocious a capella group, aptly titled The Landmines. Horrible a capella is admittedly one of my personal comedy triggers, so your mileage may vary. But imagine a band so awful that not only do they practically clear the room, except for an ecstatic and grinning Liceman, but glasses break, dogs growl, stock footage buildings from the past crumble and a woman's shoes fall off. Even better is Leibman's bit at the end, where he asks them if they have any records available.

Then there's the aforementioned soundtrack. Supervised by Blow Up frontman Jody Taylor, it is a veritable Whitman's sampler of the best of the best of 70's era proto-punk (The Stooges, The Modern Lovers), punk/new wave (Eddie & the Hot Rods, Blondie, David Johansen solo) and pop (The Babys, Pat Benatar). The catchiest songs, however, belong to Blow Up themselves, providing both the main song, “Kicking Up a Fuss” and the tune that plays during the “Play it Again” end sequence, “Beat the Devil.” (Again, further proof that Old Scratch was connected to this film.) Much like Liebman's performance, it is too bad that Blow Up's terrific efforts got saddled to a film that ended up being so maligned.

The young cast, minus Ralph Macchio as the incredibly pissy Italian-American Chooch, are serviceable at best. Macchio, only 12 here in his first film role, out-acts all of his peers and makes you wish that his wimpy character in The Karate Kid was this full of moxie and anti-social awesomeness. The others are not bad, but are not terribly memorable either and in fact, inadvertently neutralize some of the better lines in the film. There's also Harry Teinowitz as Rodney Ververgaert, a highly awkward pyromaniac who is so irritating that he actually weighs any scene he is in down. It is one of those performances that is either terrible or brilliant, because he easily makes one recall that kid in school that annoyed even the other student pariahs. Poston is kind of wasted in a one note role that requires nothing for him to do except mince, swish and invoke some of the lighter comedic stylings of your garden variety NAMBLA member. His role is symptomatic of a lot of the more politically incorrect humor, which is occasionally amusing but more of than not falls flat. Antonio Fargas, the great Antonio Fargas, is even more wasted as a cranky soccer coach who shows up for all of two minutes.

The humor misses more than it hits but the film's high weirdness factor combined with its strengths do make Up the Academy an overall entertaining movie. It does make one wonder what could have been if both Downey Sr and the writers at Mad have been given more control. But. that said, the film is worth seeking out on DVD, which has all of the Mad references reinstated, for Ron Leibman, the stellar soundtrack and the most hideously splendid a capella group ever. 

For more on Up the Academy, check out this awesome article over at Technicolor Dreams.

 Copyright Heather Drain 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hell Bent for Cinema: Mike McPadden's Heavy Metal Movies

Music and film are two constructs that fit so perfectly that they might as well be sending each construction paper hearts with glitter glue lovey words. With something that can be as epic, brutal and at times, goony as heavy metal, it is always natural for it to cross-pollinate with the wild world of film. Luckily for us, someone was ballsy, brave, educated and, yes, metal enough to traipse these curious waters. That man? Mike McPadden and his book, Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos &Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big-ScreamFilms Ever! 

This is a book, nay, a tome, that loves metal more than the older brother of your best friend in junior high who used to sell skunk weed to underage kids at the roller rink. Even more than that acquaintance you once had who could quote Rush's “Fly By Night” by heart, worshiped at the altar of Ronnie James Dio and happened to have at least one 8-sided dice in his/her pocket. In fact, the only way this book could be more dedicated to the genre of heavy metal is if it was spit shining the studded codpiece of Blackie Lawless himself.

The one and true Thor

One of the first things that stands out about about Heavy Metal Movies is its sheer density. Even as someone who is both a professional (yes, because I am that fancy) film writer and a longtime heavy metal music fan, I was shocked that there were that many movies that fit the criteria. Which is really a testament to the tireless research McPadden put into this book. The expected titles are written about, including for my money, the most uber-metal film of them all, ROCK & ROLL NIGHTMARE starring the one and only true Thor, the Canadian hard rock god. Seriously, forget about The Avengers and all of that and pick up ROCK & ROLL NIGHTMARE. In a fair and just world, every movie would have the hulky, blonde presence of Jon-Mikl Thor. 

But the flip side of that is a film like ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE. Initially, that may seem about as heavy metal as a Stryper concert, save for one very key detail, which is the presence of death metal legends Cannibal Corpse. Having seen this film years ago, how I forgot about Cannibal Corpse being in it is beyond me. Maybe that detail got lost amongst the singing operatic butts, Udo Kier (whom, some could argue, is even more metal than Cannibal Corpse themselves) and the lame, even at the time of the film's release, CRYING GAME twist ending. Even better, is that McPadden then informs us that the sole reason that the band responsible for some of the most grisly album cover art and music in the annals of metal, is even in the movie itself, is due to VENTURA star himself, Jim Carrey. The mental image of Jim Carrey rocking out to some supreme death metal trumps everything that is actually in ACE VENTURA. 

The book itself opens up with, appropriately enough, an interview with the godfather of horror-rock himself, Alice Cooper. (I type this as the ghost of Screaming Lord Sutch grimaces from the afterworld. It's okay, I love them both.) Cooper, having not only integrated horror movie ambiance and imagery with his stage shows, also has acted in such notable scary movies as John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the Italian-oddity MONSTER DOG and the ooky-spookiest of them all, SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. With a pedigree like that, as well as a hilarious cameo in WAYNE'S WORLD he is the perfect interview to set the tone for Heavy Metal Movies.

As ambitious as it is epochal, with a resume like Mike McPadden's, it feels like a no-fail formula. Here is a writer that was practically built for the job. His background includes working for Hustler back in the 1990's and even writing the script for the Skin-a-max staple ANIMAL INSTINCTS 3 (under the pseudonym Selwyn Harris, which are both nods to the legendary Grindhouses of NYC) and being hip enough to include a Steve Albini reference. How many “erotic thrillers” included references to the famed producer and former member of Big Black? Only one and McPadden wrote it. In addition to helming the seminal early 90's zine, Happyland, he also currently dips his toes into the trash culture waters with his site, McBeardo

All of this experience shines well in Heavy Metal Movies, with there being a sweet balance of humor, fucking A attitude but all with an undercurrent of being smart and impeccably researched. This is one of those films books where you may learn something new, but even if you don't, you are gonna have fun reading it one way or the other. Kudos to both McPadden and the publisher Bazillion Points for not only releasing this work but having it laid out in such a comic-book fun level.

For fringe-film culture fans and heavy metal converts alike, Heavy Metal Movies is the book equivalent of the cover art for Anthrax's appropriately named debut. But in lieu of a iron studded wrist going through your skull, you get some wicked writing and the only film book to my knowledge that intentionally has 666 movie reviews. It's enough to make the dark lord proud.

Copyright 2014 Heather Drain