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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Five Films: Leif Jonker

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Welcome to Five Films, a self-descriptive feature here at Cinema Arcana where I invite guests to contribute lists of movies they feel are underrated. No rules, no limits -- just a quintet of motion pictures they'd love more people to know about. Hopefully in doing so we can turn you, the fearless reader, onto a gem you've previously skipped or remind you to rewatch a past favorite you've forgotten about.
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Tonight's selections come from director Leif Jonker, a Viking-by-way-of-Kansas whose Super8 splattacular Darkness (1993) has long been one of my fave raves. Highlighted in an influential Fangoria article centering around D.I.Y. filmmakers, I tracked down its VHS release in the mid-'90s and was not disappointed; I eventually described the film in Deep Red magazine as "...a splatterrific good time, filled to bursting with 10-foot arterial sprays, chainsawed limbs, and a climactic meltdown orgy of explodin' noggins that'll have any worthwhile film-fan cheerin' themselves hoarse." Eleven years later, I still stand by those words. While he hasn't yet directed another feature (at least any that he'll own up to), Leif's been staying busy with shorts and commercials. As for Darkness, it received an amazing, essential, packed-to-the-rafters double-disc DVD release years back from Barrel Entertainment. Trust me, you need it. Additionally, to celebrate the film's 20th Anniversary, the guys at Vultra Video are releasing a Limited Edition Big Box VHS titled Darkness: The Metal Cut, a new, exclusive edit that restores the '90s headbanging anthems along with some more goodies. There's only 113 available, so if you're into that sort of thing, don't delay! But back here at Cinema Arcana, it's nostalgia time, as Leif takes us through his formative years. Without further ado...


When asked to contribute my list of Five Overlooked Flicks, a potential line-up instantly started to take form. It included titles I thought might be too obvious, a few that would hit the mark perfectly, and some that would appear to not fit the criteria at all -- though I'll happily argue that certain elements of the more widely known films are being overlooked. Romero's Knightriders, Friedkin's Bug and Cruising, Zulawski's Possession, The Changeling, Jack's Back, Local Hero, Howard S. Berger's Original Sins, Ronnie Sortor's Ravage, Guy Benoit's Crosley Fiver short, Real Men, Risky Business, Hair and Rocky were the first to come to mind, but the five I settled on are:

Going in Style (Martin Brest, 1979)
The Chuck Norris flick The Octagon was the first R-Rated movie I ever saw in a theater without an adult; I was accompanied by my buddy Scott Ford. The Black Hole was the first movie I ever saw on the big screen by myself; no adults, no friends. When The Black Hole was over I sneaked into the theater next door and caught the last two-thirds of Going in Style, a comedy starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Though I doubt I was the target audience, as I was only nine or ten years old at the time, I thought the flick was hilarious, touching and flat-out entertaining. I actually went back and bought a ticket so I could see it from the beginning and eventually ended up sneaking into the theater again and watching it a few more times before it was gone. Today, the movie is still fresh, funny and eminently watchable with a genuinely great script and wonderful performances. Screenwriter/director Martin Brest went on to make the big hit Midnight Run, the smash Beverly Hills Cop and the super-bomb Gigli, but in my opinion this is the one he should be known for at the end of the day. It's just a damn great flick. Most people I've spoken to have never heard of Going in Style, let alone seen it, so I don't want to spoil things by describing it to death, just check it out if you get a chance.

Fear No Evil (Frank LaLoggia, 1981)
My dad and I caught a number of drive-in triple-features back in the late '70s and early '80s. I remember watching several specific movies very clearly but the actual line-ups are a bit foggy now. I know we saw Fear No Evil on the tail-end of a triple-bill that included either The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, Prophecy, An Eye for an Eye, Vice Squad, ...or something else I can't remember. I feel like I recall saying The Hills Have Eyes was the most suspenseful of the three, Friday the 13th was the most scary, and Fear No Evil was easily the weirdest of the bunch, so it seems that was the lineup, but for years I assumed FNE played with An Eye for an Eye since they were both Avco/Embassy releases. Regardless, I thought the trailer was compelling, with the shot of the kid hurtling against the wall in gym class, and had almost caught FNE previously on a program with Phantasm and Maniac, but Philadelphia Inquirer critic Desmond Ryan had just written a huge article eviscerating Maniac as worthless, misogynistic gore-porn, so my dad refused to check it out. I'd have to wait a few years to finally see Maniac and Phantasm on video and HBO, respectively. Anywho, I first viewed FNE at the drive-in and it made an indelible impression. I was ten or eleven and didn't fully grasp the plot, nor the overt homoerotic themes, nor did I always understand what exactly was happening onscreen, but man, it was just such a bizarre, energetic movie made by a filmmaker with an undeniably unique vision and, in my estimation, clearly talent to burn. Sure, the film was all over the place, just wildly uneven, often seeming largely out-of-control, but I couldn't help digging the hell out of it. It features some damn good cast members who give excellent, compelling performances, and then there are some folks who I still wonder how they got onto the set. Its soundtrack is a bizarre mix of beautiful, driving, often furious original orchestral music (co-composed by the director LaLoggia) and a selection of punk and new wave songs from The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Boomtown Rats, B-52's and others. There's carefully composed camerawork with exciting, atmospheric cinematography throughout (the time lapse on the house being a personal favorite moment), along with bright, garish, unconvincing optical effects that my friend Steve Turner appropriately called, "Disney-esque." Of all the flicks on my list, Fear No Evil is the one that will leave most scratching their heads wondering what I was thinking, but there'll be a few who get it. And if you get it, you'll get it good.



Get Crazy (Allan Arkush, 1983)
This one actually had a brief theatrical run when I was a kid, even playing at the Westmont Theater in nearby Haddonfield, NJ, but I didn't see Get Crazy until I stumbled upon it late one night a year or two later on cable. This was long before I eventually saw The Decline of Western Civilization or Streets of Fire, so this was my first exposure to the majesty that is Lee Ving -- who delivers a high-voltage supporting performance as a crazed rock star. (This guy could've and should've had a bigger film career.) It also features one of my three all-time favorite performances from Malcolm McDowell (the other two being A Clockwork Orange and Time After Time) and Daniel Stern (the other two being Breaking Away and C.H.U.D.). According to the IMDB, Linnea Quigley even has an uncredited role as a groupie. This was a flick that I, like most folks, would dismiss at first glance as a forgettable, goofball comedy, but like Real Men, there's something else at work here -- a fast-flowing, comedic energy coming from a fresh, imaginative film-making perspective. High-art? No, but in a world where Adam Sandler is remaking Summer School and factory-produced titles like Epic Movie and its ilk are cleaning up at the box office, I'll happily Get Crazy instead any day. (Just now looking at IMDB, I had forgotten it was directed by the great Allan Arkush who also gave us the immortal Rock 'n' Roll High School.)

When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? (Milton Katselas, 1979)
When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? popped up on HBO one night to surprise my unsuspecting family with a dropkick to the gut. I was eleven or twelve and thought it was a pretty damn tough, rough, riveting experience, particularly when Marjoe Gortner pulled Lee Grant's sweater up over her head and then beat the hell out of her husband, played by Hal Linden. At this point my dad suddenly got pissed off, angrily growling something about, "...watching this vile fucking bullshit on my TV..." and turned the channel. I finally caught the movie in its entirety a couple weeks later when it showed in the middle of the night and it continued to deliver on the promise of what I had seen earlier. Red Ryder did have a limited VHS release but I don't think it ever hit laserdisc or DVD. A couple of years ago I tracked down a bootleg copy and found that, though the overall film and writing was more raggedy around the edges than I had remembered, it still retained a lot of its brute power. Worth a watch if you can track it down.

Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
Ten or so years ago I was out in L.A. during some last-ditch financing efforts for my proposed Demon Machine project. I was talking to a development executive at a fairly big studio who told me William Friedkin was her favorite director. I agreed that he was also among my favorites, saying, "I'm one of the few people I'm aware of who really loves Sorcerer." This development exec, with quite a bit of power to pass movies up the line of consideration, had never heard of it. I asked her, "So, you're a big fan of The French Connection?" She had never seen it. Nope, though she had never heard of Sorcerer nor seen French Connection, Friedkin was her "favorite director" because The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen had just received tons of press and promotion during its recent $50-million grossing theatrical re-release. These are the folks deciding what movies you get to see, people. Anyway, I absolutely love Sorcerer and have since I was 14 or 15. I pretty much read anything about this flick that I can find. I just devoured William Friedkin's autobiography, 'The Friedkin Connection,' and had previously read the bio 'Hurricane Billy,' along with Stephen King's comments in his 'Danse Macabre.' Over the years I've heard many theories/reasons why it bombed upon its release in 1977, the most common being that Star Wars killed it, but I still don't get why it didn't find an audience. I was only eight years old when I first saw the promos on television, and the shots of the truck crossing that perilously-swinging, decaying bridge absolutely mesmerized me. I was eight and even then I realized this was a special shot, that something was happening here beyond what other movies offered. I had seen Star Wars and Jaws but I still wanted to see this movie Sorcerer, too, but I'd have to wait a few years. When I did finally check it out I found it on RCA Videodisc. We rented The Wild Bunch, Cruising, Phantasm and Sorcerer that night, plus an RCA player, and taped the movies off onto our Betamax. It was a hell of a line-up that evening. I had seen Phantasm a few times by then but none of the other movies and they all lived up to their reputations and/or my expectations. Sorcerer will potentially be discovered by a larger audience soon as it's currently being remastered in 4k and will be screening at various film festival and theatrical dates before hitting Blu-Ray. Hopefully it will finally get its due as a superior piece of dramatic, action / adventure filmmaking. I'm often asked what my favorite movie of all time is and I honestly can't say with absolute certainty, but this is always one of the main contenders. I can only hope someday making-of production footage surfaces to provide the basis for a Hearts of Darkness-type documentary.



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Thanks for the list, Leif!
For a look at our other Five Films rosters, click here!


© 2013 -- Bruce Holecheck / Leif Jonker. All Rights Reserved.

3 comments:

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  3. Cant wait to see the remastered SORCERER. The first time I watched it,late night on HBO,my jaw was on the floor,afterwards I decided it was one of the best films I had ever seen.I have the beatup one sheet(taken from a deserted theater,long since torn down)Great soundtrack by Tangerine Dream

    ReplyDelete