Monday, June 12, 2017

"The Only Leaky Radiator I See Is Your Story" - Grotesque (1988)

It must be difficult as an actor to be known for one singular role in a motion picture hailed as a classic, and then to continue a career after that career high point. I am speaking, of course, about Linda Blair and her career high point, which as you can tell from the title of this post occurred in Joe Tornatore's Grotesque (1988).

Although Grotesque gets some recognition in your universe as the classic it is, some reviewers are, to put it bluntly, unkind. Reviewer moonspinner55 on IMDB writes, "Rarely have I seen such a sick, twisted piece of sludge." Reviewer lobelia-1, also on IMDB, writes, "some of the worst dialogue ever scribbled on scraps of paper in the bathroom." Mister-6 writes about the film, "You want a really bad movie? A really REALLY bad movie? One so bad that it'll make you trash your TV, gouge out your eyes with a rusty spoon and dive off the closest pier? Here you go."

I do not have to tell you how misguided these reviews are, but I will. These reviews are very misguided.

The film opens on a dark house  in a lightning storm. A woman's voice addresses someone named John and asks why they are haunted by a mysterious "he." Her poetic monologue includes the lines, "It was then that changed me, John. Made me as I am today. You can no longer look upon me now for I've lost the blush of youth and flavored my being with the rustic essence of age. Like a fine wine exposed to the wind, I am left too long for the ages, and now I've turned into the vinegar of bitter gall."

We see inside the house. The old woman speaking is brushing her hair. She waits for a black-cloaked death figure with a droopy eyeball to make its way to her bed. It embraces her. Shockingly, she becomes young again.


Then we cut to a film screening room. The haunting, poetic death was simply a movie, and one that might be considered pretentious at that. Amid copious praise about the quality of special effects--presumably the age makeup and the droopy eyeball--the special effects man announces he is heading to the country for a family vacation.

The aforementioned family includes Linda Blair as the aforementioned special effects man's daughter. She drives through up a snowy mountain with her friend Kathy, and the two are harassed by aggressive punks driving a Volkswagen minibus, as punks tend to do.

A few miles up the road, the punks' van has broken down. Their leader, Scratch, vents his frustration at the top of his lungs.  One is immediately worried that Scratch will drop dead of a heart attack at any moment.

One also soon finds out that the punks are in the mountains for a job: They intend to find out what the Hollywood effects man is hiding in his house. They reason that it is either money or drugs.

Ms. Blair and her friend drive by, but, perhaps unwisely, they do not help the punks--or punkers, as they call them.

When they reach the cabin, Kathy is startled by a man entering her bedroom. The man wears a primitive swamp creature mask.

Of course, the audience is well ahead of Kathy, having been warned about Ms. Blair's father's odd sense of humor and his vocation as a special effects man. The filmmakers thus gain audience goodwill by letting them figure out the first scare of the film, as the father removes the mask while Kathy screams.

Soon Ms. Blair's father, Orville, is showing Kathy around his den, which is filled with monster masks. "It looks so real," Kathy says of one of the masks. "You know, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between what's real and what's not."

Orville replies profoundly, "What is reality? And what's illusion? Row row row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream."

Orville shows Kathy and the rest of the family some home movies showing Orville in makeup, scaring his wife. Perplexingly, the home movies include intercut shots of the same scene from two perspectives, as well as POV shots.

Everyone goes to bed, and Orville's wife tells him she fed Patrick, though we have not seen any kind of pet in the house.

Later at night, we watch someone prowling around the outside of the house. We suspect it is Orville again, but a silhouette of spiky hair against the front door indicates it must be Scratch the punker.

Scratch and his punker friends home-invade the cabin, dragging Ms. Blair and Kathy downstairs where Orville is sleeping. "What do you want?" Orville asks.

"Your money," Scratch whispers.

For no apparent reason, one of the female punkers kills Orville. They threaten Ms. Blair's mother.

Eloquently, Ms. Blair says, "No! Don't touch my mother! You've already killed my father! What do you want from us?"

They explain that they heard there was something secret in the cabin, either money or diamonds or drugs. A punker named Earbox who always rhymes says, "There ain't no hope if there ain't no dope!"

Throughout the confrontation, the scene is being watched by some kind of pig/bigfoot monster in the next room.

Kathy gets away and runs outside, then back inside the cabin, only to find that Ms. Blair's mother has been murdered as well. Kathy is killed by the sadistic female punker, leaving Ms. Blair the sole survivor.

Despite the deaths of the innocent people, our concerns are still with the punkers, who are all so agitated they seem on the verge of strokes.

Sally escapes by jumping through a window a la Sally Hardesty. She runs away into the snow, but Earbox pursues her.

In the middle of the brutal home invasion, the filmmakers show their humorous side with a series of absurdist vignettes. A couple of punkers make love in the den surrounded by monster masks, and the woman with great difficulty pulls off her jacket and then puts on a skull mask. Two punkers hear a loud dog growling, but when they open the door they see only a tiny toy dog. These surreal vignettes add a great deal artistically to the film, which would be quite short and direct without them.

Soon the punkers find the true secret of the cabin. One of them moves aside a bookcase and finds a secret room decorated with childish pictures and a dartboard. "It's a baby's nursery," he says.

Suddenly he and his girlfriend are attacked by the pig/bigfoot creature that had been watching earlier.

This unknown, and some would say grotesque, occupant of the house is the true secret. Presumably, this is Patrick, mentioned as having been fed earlier.

The deformed, hunchbacked man kills the punker and his girlfriend, then sees Orville's dead body. "Papa!" he screams.

Scratch and the remaining punkers enter the room, see the man, and cower in fear, running out of the house. Horrifically, one of them meets her end by being picked up and pushed gently against a tree.

The film then indulges in what can only be a fetish for the filmmakers: people running through powdery snow dressed in light clothing and, in some cases, bare feet. The punkers, Ms. Blair, and Ms. Blair's deformed brother all make their way through the brightly moonlit snowfields, all of them underdressed.

Scratch and his girlfriend reveal they have a revolver, though neither explains why they failed to use the weapon previously.

Meanwhile, a punker named Gibbs and another one named Donna find a mineshaft and a convenient campfire. The girlfriend complains that the fire will draw the attention of the maniac, and Gibbs responds, "You got a choice. Either face the maniac or you freeze your ass off."

As would any woman in the same situation, his girlfriend replies, "My ass doesn't get cold."

"I don't doubt it, Donna. It's because you think with your ass and not your brain." Gibbs finds his remark extremely amusing.

After further talk about Donna's posterior, Gibbs is attacked by the deformed man and killed with a hand to the face. Then the man strangles Donna in front of the fire.

In the morning, Linda Blair is still running through the snow in her pajamas, avoiding the punkers. Scratch and his girlfriend are close by, yelling at each other at the top of their lungs about Patrick. "He's a freak, ain't he?" says the girlfriend.

"Yeah, he's a freak! But what does that make us?" yells Scratch.

"We are people. Real people! Everyone else is phoney but we are real!" she screams.

Linda Blair is finally found by another punker. He strangles her, but Patrick intercedes, strangling the man back.

Patrick lifts up Ms. Blair's head, but then he just leaves her in the snow.

Some time later, the next sequence of the film begins with the local grocery store owner driving to the cabin to pick Orville up for fishing. In a touch of dark humor, shots of the shopkeeper in his Jeep are intercut with shots of the dead people in the cabin to which he is driving.

There are about 10 such intercut shots over the course of three minutes.

In an interesting twist, when the shopkeeper finds the bloody bodies in the cabin, he does not at first assume it is one of Orville's pranks. The film's serious tone has returned.

After the police are called, Tab Hunter's Uncle Rod arrives. The sheriff asks him about enemies, but Mr. Hunter stresses that everybody loved the murdered family.

"They couldn't have gotten far in that blizzard last night," says a deputy. "It should be easy."

"Not too easy," cautions the sheriff cryptically. "We're gonna have to form a posse. There's a good possibility that your niece is still alive."

A group of 15  men with rifles and dogs combs the woods. "No unnecessary shooting," warns the sheriff.

The audience is treated to many, many more shots of people walking through the light snow. Only one or two are wearing boots.

The sheriff is a fountain of wisdom. When Mr. Hunter says the punkers might be lost, the sheriff says, "Let me tell you something. When someone is running for their life, they get animal instincts. Sometimes better than an animal."

Finally, the pose finds Linda Blair, who is still alive.

At the exact same time, Scratch and his girlfriend are attacked by Patrick, but Scratch, at last, remembers his gun. He shoots Patrick over and over. But Patrick is not dead. He strangles Scratch as the police and Tab Hunter arrive.

Shockingly, the posse shoots Patrick, killing him, despite Mr. Hunter's protests.

The next chapter, a police procedural, begins with a long, long interrogation scene with the sheriff and deputy playing good cop/bad cop with Scratch. The sheriff says, "The only leaky radiator I see is your story." Then he threatens to blow Scratch's head off with his index finger.

Next, we find out that Linda Blair has died. Tab Hunter, her uncle, is upset that the punkers have killed his entire family; it seems he has forgotten that Patrick was shot by the police.

Mr. Hunter returns to the police station in order to explain the story. Patrick, he says, was raised by Mr. Hunter's family. Despite his deformity, Patrick was good and gentle. The sheriff says he can't lock the punkers up forever without proof.

Mr. Hunter leaves, stating, "Fortunately for me, gentlemen, I'm outside the law. I don't need any proof."

After Mr. Hunter leaves, the deputy says, "Looks like a man who's going to take matters into his own hands."

"Frankly," says the sheriff. "I don't give a damn."

Mr. Hunter, however, takes his time exacting his vengeance. He rents two surgical tables from a medical supply business. He buys a shotgun wrapped in brown paper from a homeless friend of his, though he conceals it poorly as he carries it down the street.

Meanwhile, Scratch and his girlfriend are released from lockup. Wisely, Scratch sums up his philosophy: "You gotta play this game by their rules and in this game, the rules are in our favor."

After the punkers are done with the police station phone, two preteens call someone to spring them from the joint.

Tab Hunter's plan begins to come together. He abducts Scratch and his girlfriend at gunpoint. They return to the cabin, where Mr. Hunter has set up Patrick's old room to serve as an impromptu operating room.

Mr. Hunter then reveals the dark family secret: Patrick was his own son, and Orville's family took care of him.

Scratch's eyes nearly pop out of his face at this revelation.

But the surprises continue. Mr. Hunter peels off a mask to reveal his true face, which closely resembles Patrick's! Orville had made him a Tab Hunter mask so he could function in the outside world.

For a moment, the audience worries that ripping off the mask was not a well thought out action, as Orville is now dead and unable to make another mask. However, Mr. Hunter explains he doesn't need a mask anymore. Compared to the punkers, "I'm beautiful by comparison!"

His elaborate plan is to surgically alter the punkers' faces so they resemble Mr. Hunter and Patrick. He does so quite quickly, as the film cuts ahead in time and we see the plan has succeeded.

But the film has still more twists up its proverbial sleeve. The film burns to a white screen, a la Two Lane Blacktop or Gremlins 2.

I will not reveal the final twist, which must be experienced first-hand to fully appreciate, but suffice it to say it involves references to both classical movie monsters and Laurel and Hardy.

Someone--perhaps it was Stella Adler--once said, "Great acting is bugging your eyes out." If we abide by this eloquent definition, then Brad Wilson as Scratch is one of the finest actors of his generation. (Mr. Wilson's range is demonstrated by his performance as Skeeg in Under the Boardwalk, also from 1988.) In service of Grotesque's intricate script, Mr. Wilson is able to bug his eyes out on command, an ability that serves him well as his character faces car trouble, disloyal punkers, attacks by grotesque hulking figures, and police inquisitions. In a film filled with fine performers at the level of Linda Blair, Guy Stockwell, and Tab Hunter, Mr. Wilson is truly a revelation.

The film itself is quite clever as well, frequently referencing cinematic tricks and highlighting makeup effects. The film raises interesting questions as well. Did Orville enter the makeup effects business because of Patrick's condition? Perhaps we shall never know.

Another clever component of Grotesque's involves the many different kinds of film it combines into one scintillating package. It is in different parts a teen comedy, a home invasion thriller, a monster movie, and a police procedural. In fact, it almost seems like an anthology film with the added bonus of occasionally recurring characters. It is a true delight from beginning to end.