Archive for the 'Richard McKenna' Category

Movie Reviews: 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983)

—Review by Richard McKenna

2019 After the Fall

Beware: spoilers ahead.

In 1983, as low-rent filmmakers scrabbled about for suitably desolate locations to double as nuked-out future deserts, quarry owners across Italy continued to rub their greedy hands in glee at the post-apocalyptic cinematic windfall Brezhnev and Reagan had unwittingly—or, in retrospect, wittingly—guaranteed them. Smelling money in the irradiated water, director Sergio Martino decided to take a break from his usual domestic sex comedies to give the world 2019: After the Fall of New York (hereafter just 2019).

According to Martino, who comes off as a nice guy in interviews, and would make a reassuringly avuncular vet or dentist, 2019 was inspired by viewings of Blade Runner (1982) and Escape From New York (1981), though not, intriguingly, by Mad Max (1979) or Mad Max 2 (1981). In an alternate, even more unlikely version of the story, he claims that 2019 was written before the release of Escape From New York. I don’t know how many plutonium isotopes you’d have to absorb to believe that.

The film opens with a jazzman, his face scarred by gluey, suppurating pustules (of which we will see many more over the course of the film), standing by a lamppost on the Brooklyn waterfront, somehow getting an elegiac synth riff to come out of his trumpet. In the background, across the small pond standing in for the Hudson, we see the ruins of New York. The camera tracks through the city, giving us a good reminder of why the scale models in films were called miniatures: it would be hard to make them look any smaller if you tried. On Italian TV some years ago, Martino claimed that the ruined skeletons of the skyscrapers—easily the most convincing special effect in the film—were made of burned and painted fruit crates, which sounds more than credible.

2019 Lobby-3We’re told that ever since somebody pressed the “fatal button” that unleashed nuclear holocaust, the human race has been completely sterile and no more children have been born (understandably, since “the radiation could not have been worse”). New York is now controlled by the evil Euraks, sadistic Europeans who dress like Darth Vadered-up versions of the crew in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965). The Euraks spend their time chasing down and collecting mutants for vivisection, and dwell in a base which looks suspiciously like an industrial wine-making facility. The Eurak commander is an unnamed bald guy whose office wall is a replica of Picasso’s Guernica, and his lieutenant is the predictably cruel and sensual Ania, played by Anna Kanakis, who’s strangely cute in this, and her acting has been worse—a lot worse.*

Next, we’re introduced to our hero, Parsifal (played by Michael Sopkiw, who Italian genre-hounds repeatedly describe as a double of Kurt Russell, although the man looks nothing like Kurt Russell). Parsifal, tellingly if absurdly sharing the name of an Arthurian Grail-seeker featured in Wagner’s final opera, wears butcher’s mesh gloves and a leather headband, and when we meet him, he’s taking part in a Deathsport-like duel called The Nevada Race, driving an armored car with a shield welded to the passenger door and a cannon on the roof. When he wins, to the acclaim of the well-behaved crowd of pustule-covered punks and new wavers in attendance, he is awarded a license to kill, twenty ounces of gold, and a sex-slave called Flower. The couple head off on a pretty cool motorcycle trike across Monument Valley, which is dotted with the inert corpses of androids. Flower tells Parsifal that she once knew an android, adding, “I didn’t know what he was until I had made love with him!”

Parsifal liberates Flower, but soon after is kidnapped by agents of the rebel Pan-American Confederacy, who stun him with a gun from Barbarella and take him to their headquarters in Alaska. Here he’s informed that the Confederacy has located the world’s one remaining fertile woman, and that, partnered with a mopey guy sporting a robot claw and a strongman wearing an eyepatch, he must bring her back from New York so that she can be sent to Alpha Centauri to restart the human race.

2019 Lobby-1

Cue a lot of running about in a scrapyard and a tatty, one-street New York set—built for another film due to be shot in Rome, actually, and inherited by Martino after it caught fire. The trio encounter a member of a tribe of dwarfs—called “Shorty, what else?”—as well as the Needle People, a gang of scavengers who live off the rats they manage to spike. Shorty and a tired-looking blonde from the Needle People join the gang, and together they stumble upon the theater inhabited by Big Ape (George Eastman) and his gang of mutant monkeys.

Big Ape joins the crusade, the group finds the world’s only fertile woman, Melissa, preserved inside what looks like a gigantic croissant display case by her long dead scientist father, and they break out of the city. Their escape takes them down a walled-up tunnel that, for no clear reason, is protected by a mechanical portcullis, multiple waves of luminous spikes rising from the ground (with enough room to drive a car through, luckily), dozens of Eurak soldiers who leap out of alcoves, and an inappropriately extravagant-looking laser cannon styled like Syd Mead’s interpretation of a hostess trolley.

2019 Lobby-2By the time they make it to the desert to rendezvous with the Confederacy, only Parsifal and Melissa are alive. They board the ship and prepare to depart for Alpha Centauri.

2019 is basically just a heap of what the Italians call trovate—cool, gimmicky, derivative ideas piled higgledy-piggledy on top of one another and embellished to the point of absurdity: blood is gummy and orange; the dwarf commits the most unlikely suicide ever as he cries out, “Stupid bastards!”; rats attack as if they’re hell spawn (a customary occurrence in Italian genre films); skin is lasered off; someone says, “Careful, there’s something weird about this” about the weirdest thing that’s ever happened anywhere, at any time.

What stands out most to me now, after watching the film for the first time in 20 years, is how noisy it is—constantly, deafeningly, arbitrarily noisy. There’s a compressed noise for everything that happens: kicks make plastic-sounding punch noises, punches sound like a drum machine snare, a stabbing sounds like somebody kicking a sack of potatoes. And, Christ alive, there’s the endless repetition of the echoey laser noise the baddies’ bow-casters make!

The film was a French-Italian co-production, hence the transalpine nature of the cast, and the need to fit English dialogue onto the multilingual, labial gurnings of the actors results in peculiar ejaculations and a very loose way with prepositions (the aforementioned “I didn’t know what he was until I had made love with him,” for instance). Like many films from the same period and genre, 2019 is an amazing halfway house: there obviously wasn’t a huge budget, but there was, inexplicably, a budget, and one spent in a totally inconsistent way.

Martino claims the film was financially successful in Italy and around Europe in its day, something he admits would be unthinkable now, and he claims it was one of the last genre films the country produced before industry shortsightedness—or, he hints, political machinations (presumably the anti-genre intellectuals)—sabotaged the national film business by hindering the technological improvements that were already the norm elsewhere. Genre films were often categorized as being automatically right-wing at the time (escapism and imperialist, U.S.-individualist machismo being signifiers of crypto-fascist leanings), and the national film criticism industry was dominated by figures like Goffredo Foffi, whose strict Marxist rigor left little room for leather-clad rocker survivalists laser-blasting S&M mutants in the face while driving muscle cars.

2019 French Poster

2019 is creative as opposed to inventive, in the sense that you can almost hear the crew manically nailing stuff together, painting bits of plyboard and attaching spikes to the front of old cars, without there actually being much sense of novelty or surprise about any of it. The film is amazingly childish, and much of it actually resembles improvised play, appearing as it does to have been made up when the cameras started rolling. What can I say? My mistake! It’s immensely enjoyable—immensely stupid, often boring, totally ridiculous, and immensely enjoyable.

What it reminds me of most are the times I managed to persuade other, sportier, more outgoing kids to stop playing war and instead play games based around my 2000 AD-fueled sci-fi fantasies, only to feel the action quickly drifting out of my control—yes, we were in the future, or on the moon, but all they wanted to do was run fast, shout, and knock each other over anyway, and I, prissy obsessive that I was, would become increasingly irked and sidelined by the lack of genre respect. And I was obviously not going to be Parsifal. More like the mopey guy with the robot claw.

(Images via Wrong Side of the Art)

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*Kanakis was Miss Italy in 1977 (famously at age 15, cultural relativity fans!) and was married briefly to Claudio Simonetti from Goblin. She used to be nicknamed Lady Ribaltone (“Lady Turncoat,” loosely translated) for her perceived habit of constantly changing political allegiances. That probably wouldn’t mean much in most places, but this is Italy, the country where one of the best-known songs of the late Giorgio Gaber (a sort of cross between Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, and Mr. Rogers) is “Destra-Sinistra” (“Right-Left”), a light-hearted attempt to tackle the decidedly not-light-hearted national obsession with assigning an absolute political connotation to anyone and anything (sample lyric: “By its nature the potato is left-wing; mashed into purée, it’s right-wing”). Even 10 years ago Kanakis was still a fixture on talk shows, her I’m-half-Greek-I-speak-my-mind shtick and penchant for clingy clothes quite the compelling combo. Her star seems to have faded over the last decade.

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Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living as a translator among the crumbling ruins of Rome. He dreams of being one day rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

Movie Reviews: Hawk the Slayer (1980)

—Review by Richard McKenna

Hawk UK Quad

Beware: spoilers ahead.

1980’s Hawk the Slayer is what a semi-cynical British attempt to crossbreed Star Wars mania with the cover art of Wishbone Ash’s Argus looks like, and its channeling of Roger Dean by way of Roger Corman is—in its small way—as awesome as that sounds.

The film flopped when it came out, and if it made it to the grim provinces I inhabited at the time, it didn’t stay long, more’s the pity. It would be nice to be able to claim that the ten-year-old me who spent most of his waking hours trying to wish a copy of Tunnels and Trolls into his possession envisioned fantasy film (or “Sword and Sorcery,” as we then knew it) as being possessed of the production values of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and the socio-political nous of Game of Thrones, but that would be a lie of the most egregious kind: this is how I envisioned fantasy—an insane soup of lasers, elves, disco, tacky props, and plenty of folk in capes running through chilly woods tricked out with plastic skulls, dry ice, and green lights while swinging a sword. It’s exactly the type of film that I would have made in 1980, had I only been given the opportunity. Oh, and no girls allowed!

HTS 1980-1

Britain’s Starburst magazine panned Hawk the Slayer at the time, disappointed that the first film “with a sword and sorcery slant” should be such a “cheap little” one, so I never bothered trying to see it in subsequent years, and perhaps that was wise—it’s definitely the type of thing best seen before you hit twelve or after you hit forty. Hard to believe that within two years of its release, films like Dragonslayer (1981) and Conan the Barbarian (1982)—which seem almost to come from another decade, if not another century altogether—would appear, though there are echoes of Hawk the Slayer‘s cheap pleasures in The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), and, weirdly, Excalibur (1981).

A prologue in a golden sauna sets things up: brooding Hawk (the disconcertingly Mike Oldfield-like John Terry) is good, while his disfigured brother Voltan (Jack Palance) is evil (obviously—his name starts with a ‘v’). Voltan kills their father after the “old man” (who looks a lot younger than Palance) refuses to give Voltan “the last of the Elven mind-stones,” which goes instead to Hawk after it lights up green, floats through the air, and is grasped by the cool living-hand pommel of Hawk’s sword. Hawk announces that he will kill Voltan and avenge their father.

HTS 1980-4After titles telling us that we have Chips Production to thank for what we’re watching (and what, to a Brit, could be more inviting, more dreamy, than the cozy domestic pleasures of a plate of chips?) come credits so dense with Harrys, Erics and Bernards that they look like something from the late 1940s: a good third of the crew seem to be actually called Terry, and the cast list reads like a postprandial fever dream of parochial British TV and cinema, although strangely it was the two American stars, Terry and Palance, who were singled out for criticism at the time for their respective lack of animation and overacting. In the second case, at least, that seems a little unfair—how the hell do you want Jack Palance to play an evil warlord in a no-budget fantasy world?

In blurry flashbacks which include one of the oddest tracking shots I’ve ever seen, we discover that a jealous Voltan killed Hawk’s beloved bride (City of the Living Dead‘s Catriona MacColl) before setting off on a rampage of cruelty around the land, and, flash forward, learn that he has now taken hostage the mother superior of a monastery (seemingly and incongruously a Christian monastery), promising that she will be put to death unless his demands for gold are met. Thus begins a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the woods as a wounded survivor of Voltan’s cruelty seeks out Hawk, who, with the help of a handy witch, reassembles his crack squad of elf, dwarf, and giant. In the meantime, Palance bickers with his headstrong son and repeatedly pops off to another dimension to have the scars on his face laser-anesthetized by the evil entity protecting him. You can practically smell the heat coming off the d12s.

HTS 1980-2As it turns out, Baldin the dwarf and Gort the giant are useless except for some laboured comic relief, and even Hawk himself does far less slaying than you might expect, given his name. It’s Crow the rapid-fire elf, Ranulf the crippled warrior with the hundred-rounds-a-minute wrist-crossbow, and the Sorceress with her polystyrene storms and crazy-string mummify spell who contribute most to Voltan’s eventual downfall in the film’s absurd denouement.

The soundtrack, written by the film’s producer and co-writer, Harry Robertson, who scored several Hammer films starting in the late 1960s, runs the gamut of inappropriateness, from spooky baroque harpsichord riffs to disco space-rock, and each time Hawk appears, his signature synth trill is heard—even the synth sound that starts Jon and Vangelis‘ virgin romance anthem “I Hear You Now” is in there. The matte paintings seem to have been taken from some completely unrelated book of fairy tales, there’s a laser hula-hoop teleport device, Patrick Magee (!) as a druid, and, were proof of metal intent needed, what must be a tip of the hat to Judas Priest’s 1978 Killing Machine in the line of dialogue, “What manner of man are you?”

HTS 1980-5

Director Terry Marcel’s assertion that he wanted to create “something to top spaghetti westerns and kung-fu films” was obviously hugely optimistic (unless he was talking about the Foley work, with its incredible crushing-a-polythene-bag punch noises), and yet, for all its faults, the damn thing is just so enormously entertaining: enthusiastic, pacey, and ridiculous, its garish joke-shop world is engaging enough not to outlive its welcome, in part thanks to the almost total lack of character development, subtext, or anything except battles, magic, and Medieval/Renaissance/D&D yo-ho-hos, the naive cardboard-cut-out shallowness of the whole undertaking somehow serving to reinforce its archetypal power. It’s also, for anyone British, a weird window back into a country which was so much less sophisticated and demanding than it is today—though given the short shrift the feature got at the box office, perhaps not quite that undemanding.

Or maybe it’s just the fact that the whole thing seems to have been improvised in a British wood one overcast March that lends it peculiar resonance for those like me, who were acting out our longed-for fantasy worlds to even smaller audiences in similarly wintry and provincial woods at the same time.

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Richard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living as a translator among the crumbling ruins of Rome. He dreams of being one day rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.


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