Monday, December 11, 2017

"Okay, I'll Leave It on the Table" - Don't Go Near the Park (1979)

Our next film is 1979's fairly well known but possibly underappreciated time-spanning adventure film Don't Go Near the Park. While this film does have its fans, it appears that not everybody appreciates it sufficiently. For example, on IMDB, reviewer DocEmmettBrown writes, "Everything about this film goes way beyond amateur....The lighting is abysmal....The acting is appalling....The plot progresses at bizarre speeds, some scenes dragging on for way too long and other plot points zooming past at top speed." Sam Beddoes calls it "an incoherent mess...absurd pointless ideas just appear now and then." Reviewer Notsoboo writes, "this movie includes it all: bad acting, stupid effects, weak plot, and best of all, two 12,000 year old murderers, everything."

Clearly these misconceptions need to be dispelled...

The film begins with what might be considered either a disclaimer or an endorsement: "This film is fiction, though it is based on actual occurrences which happened over the centuries."

Further text explains that certain primitive tribes have attributed eternal youth and life to the use of magical plants and, of course, cannibalism.

A final text block informs us we are about to see a scene from 12,000 years ago. An elderly cavewoman recites a curse on her children: "You are condemned to perpetual dying, but never death."

Further, she says the grown children will suffer 10 years aging for every year of life. Then she explains that in 12,000 years the stars will align with the moon again and some kind of complex sacrifice will give them eternal life, or possibly eternal damnation if everything does not work out correctly.

As with all good movie-opening curses, the audience has no idea why the characters are being cursed.

Without explaining further, a cloud of smoke envelops the old woman—whose fingers are remarkably large and whose fingernails are remarkably red—and she becomes a skeleton.

The cave in Bronson Canyon, familiar from films such as Demonwarp, shakes with an earthquake, and the scene fades to a new one with the subtitle "16 years ago." Whether the time is 12,016 years in the past, or the present day, we cannot be sure, until we see people in modern dress and sunglasses, making it unlikely that it occurs 12,016 years in the past.

The modern story begins with a shock as the cursed young man from 12,000 years earlier strangles a boy whose only crime is fishing, and then disembowels the curiously nipple-less boy with his bare hands!

In a beautifully conceived touch, we watch as the young man's cannibalism transfers the boy's life energy to the young man, symbolized by a gradual change in the hair colors--as well as hair volumes--of the predator and his prey.

At a charming Day of the Dead parade near a cemetery, the young man sees a young woman. Through his sister's voiceover, we understand that he must conceive a child in order for the siblings to attain eternal life--and the 12,000 year deadline is fast approaching.

Naturally, he follows the woman, who is played by Linnea Quigley in an early role, to her house, only to find a "Room for Rent" sign on her lawn.

Just as naturally, he enters the house without knocking and finds the woman showering. She is so shocked that he interrupted her shower that she invites him to rent her room.

The filmmakers' efficiency is amply demonstrated by the room-renting scene. The woman, dressed in a towel, says, "Well, let me show you the room."

They walk about 10 feet to a doorway, which she opens a crack, revealing nothing of the pitch-black room. "The couch opens into a bed," she says.

Immediately, without seeing the room first, the man says, "I'll take it." He walks into the dark room.

"Okay," she says. "It'll be fifty dollars."

He shuts the door, disappearing inside.

"Did you hear me?" she asks through the closed door.

"I'll leave it on the table," he says.

"Okay, well, at least let me give you a key to the front door." She pauses. "Okay, I'll leave it on the table."

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this scene might seem stilted or unrealistic, but director Lawrence D. Folders imbues it with a sense of momentum and inevitability so unstoppable that the characters barely seem to be acting and reacting like real people. Such is the power of masterful filmmaking! (Additionally, as an aside, I must protest the complexity of your universe’s procedures for procuring living arrangements, with the ridiculous offers and leases and contracts. The procedures in my universe, accurately depicted here in Don’t Go Near the Park, are much simpler, and always end with the phrase, “Okay, I’ll leave it on the table.”)

In the next scene, the 12,000-year-old sister--who is wearing some kind of old woman mask on top of an eyepatch for no discernible reason--cannibalizes a victim of her own so she may regain her youthful appearance.

A newspaper rack displays the headline "Child Lost Again," presumably the hard-hitting story of an unfortunate child whose parents repeatedly cannot find him or her.

Carrying out his only slightly complicated plan, the 12,000-year-old brother, who is going by the name Mark, hypnotizes Linnea Quigley--with his eyes--into marrying him.

In the scene after their wedding, Ms. Quigley gives birth to a baby in an operating room. "Push," commands the obstetrician. "Careful, careful. Push! Push harder!"

In bed, Mark and Ms. Quigley discuss the name they have given their infant daughter. "I like the name Bondi because she is a bond."

"What do you mean? What kind of bond?"

He evades the question, then says, "Our responsibility is to Bondi. She is the most important thing in my life."

In the next scene, Mark is in the front lawn, playing with Bondi in a crib. Ms. Quigley emerges from the house, puts her hands on her hips, and says, "You don't have any time for me anymore, do you?" Then, without waiting for an answer, she storms back into the house.

The film then shows some scenes of Mark and Bondi bonding as she grows up. In one heartwarming scene, Mark plops down on his daughter's bed. "The word is out on you that you've been causing all kinds of trouble," he says.

"Daddy," she replies, "Mommy hit me."

Mark is unconcerned. "Well, now she says that you made her burn her arm. And you know Mom, she's kinda weird, huh?"

He follows this with a long story, told in flashback, about the cavemen who used to live in the area before there was a city. In the story, helpfully intercut with stock footage of chimpanzees, an elderly cavewoman molests a young boy, then strangles him--truly a classic bedtime story for five-year old Bondi.

When Bondi turns 16, her father gives her a large gold and ruby necklace. "Oh, Daddy, it's beautiful," she says. "It looks good enough to eat."

At the same birthday party, Bondi's mother fights with Bondi's father because he showers all his attention on their daughter. Distraught, Bondi starts packing a bag in her bedroom. Then she sleeps through the night. Then she wakes up, finishes up her packing, and runs away from home.

Thus begins the next phase of the film, which cuts to child actor Meeno Peluce, famous from his many starring roles on television in shows such as Voyagers! and Best of the West, who is running away from his exceptionally unconcerned mother. He runs to an abandoned barn.

Meanwhile, fellow runaway Bondi shows poor judgment by getting into a very 1970s van with three unsavory men in their twenties. Two of the men rape her in the back of the van while the third man drives, but eventually she is rescued when she grabs the ruby necklace, which begins to glow.

Supernaturally, the van veers off a bridge, falls five feet into a wash, and explodes with the force of a small atomic bomb.

Fortunately, Bondi appears on the side of the road, unharmed and still clutching her magic necklace.

A dog we have never seen leads Bondi to Meeno Peluce's abandoned barn. However, the barn is not as abandoned as it seemed. In fact, the 12,000-year-old woman is using it as a home, having decorated it with antique Victorian furniture placed carefully on the straw-covered barn floor.

Recognizing her brother's amulet around Bondi's neck, the woman, who goes by the names Petronella and Patty, invites Bondi to rest in her barn.

The film's philosophical themes become more clear during a flashback to the old woman's curse 12,000 years ago, as the woman interrogates the accursed brother and sister. The sister says, "Children like plants in the jungle grow in season. Knowledge is not so easily grown. The need is for centuries. The need is for millenniums. The need is ours!"

(We realize during this flashback that the brother and sister are being cursed by their elderly mother because they killed and ate the entire tribe to remain eternally young, though why this cannibalism occurred before their mother cursed them to an eternal life of cannibalism remains unclear.)

Meanwhile, back in the present of 1979, Meeno Peluce finds Bondi sleeping on a sofa in the barn and, as 8-year-old boys will, he runs his hand across her face, hair, and down her shirt.

When she wakes up, he says, "I'm sorry. I didn't know you were alive."

He explains where they are: "This ain't no prison. This is heaven." He further explains that the area surrounding the barn is cursed, so nobody bothers those who live there. The place is a sanctuary (Meeno Peluce charmingly pronounces it "snacktuary"), "a safe place where evil creatures can live."

(Although the barn is in the middle of a dusty lot, the area is referred to as a park throughout the film, hence the title "Don't Go Near the Park.")

Bondi also meets the other kid who lives in the barn, a teenaged boy named Cowboy Mr. America, or Cowboy for short. Two minutes after they meet, Bondi and Cowboy are sharing illicit drugs and making out on a staircase.

The narrative follows Meeno Peluce for much of the next act, as he meets a middle-aged writer played by Aldo Ray and learns about the demons of Los Feliz that haunt the park. Mr. Ray, after giving a history lesson about the park, delivers the famous line "How can we understand...people in their time when we can't even understand ourselves in our time?"

Putting one and one together, Meeno and Bondi realize that Patty is actually one of the evil demons of Los Feliz. When Patty finds them, Nick falls out of a tree and injures himself, but Patty uses something called "life plant" to heal his injury.

Later, Bondi has a dream in which she opens coffin after coffin, some of them containing monsters that grab her.

Bondi runs screaming out of the barn and into the night, where she trips, falls, and rolls right into the cave in Bronson Canyon.

The same evening, Meeno spies on Patty when she finds a girl reading a magazine by a campfire in the park. Meeno watches Patty commit cannibalism and grow younger, so he is slightly suspicious about the woman's true nature.

It is convenient that Bondi has rolled into the correct cave, because her father is inside, ready to perform the ceremony that will free him from the curse if he sacrifices his daughter.

Unfortunately for Bondi, when she tries to escape the cave, the dog from earlier jumps up on her and attempts to molest her like so many people before it.

For only partially clear reasons, Bondi's father and his sister come into conflict about what to do, so naturally they shoot lasers out of their eyes as a form of sibling rivalry.

Patty, who seconds earlier was attempting to sacrifice Bondi, gives the girl advice to save herself. "Bondi, the pendant!" says Patty. "Swallow it!"

She eats the jewelry, of course.

This action has the effect of turning Bondi into an old woman, which we all know is one of the many potential side effects of swallowing jewelry. In fact, she becomes the mother of Mike and Patty. She delivers the heartfelt message of the film: "Children all," she says, "learn wisdom. Learn strength. Learn understanding so that ye may know also where is the length of days and life, where is the light of the eyes and peace. The nature's balance that you destroyed will now destroy you!"

An earthquake occurs, forcing the brother and sister to revert to their actual age of 12,000-plus years. Or possibly it allows the zombies of the tribe from 12,000 years earlier to rise from the cave and eat the flesh of the aged brother and sister.

In any case, the old woman becomes 16-year-old Bondi again. Aldo Ray rescues her, Cowboy, and Meeno Peluce from the cave, and they all fall asleep--shirtless, for some reason--in Mr. Ray's bachelor pad.

In the tragic coda, Bondi, Meeno, and Cowboy discover that the city is demolishing the old barn. Not knowing where to go, they wander through the park, then regain the happiness of childhood by swinging on a swing set.

However, there is an ambiguous, possibly sinister, ending, which I shall not spoil.

If nothing else, Don't Go Near the Park is a simple story, well told. It checks off most if not all of the required components of heartwarming cinema: a loving brother and sister, an abandoned house, cannibalism. And Aldo Ray. Moreover, it is realistic as well. After all, anthropologists have never been able to prove that cannibal cavemen didn't have eye lasers, and physicists have never been able to prove that 1970s vans never caused nuclear explosions by veering off bridges.

The quality of the film is due in no small part to art director Robert A. Burns (1944-2004), famous from other classics such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Tourist Trap (1979), Disco Godfather (1979), The Howling (1981), Mausoleum (1983), and Re-Animator (1985). His art direction in Don't Go Near the Park is primarily naturalistic, fitting the story of 12,000-year-old cavemen in Los Angeles, but it has some touches of fantasy, such as Bondi's magic necklace and the zombie cavemen hiding inside the cave in Bronson Canyon.

Befitting its title, Don't Go Near the Park is above all a cautionary tale. If any of us are placed in a situation, like Meeno Peluce, where we find our newfound runaway friend is being pursued by her father and aunt because they need to sacrifice her to achieve immortality, then perhaps the best solution is simply to...don't go near the park.