Saturday, August 22, 2009

SPLATTER CINEMA: The Toxic Avenger

Don't you hate it when you show up to a party and someone's wearing the same outfit as you?

(Left to right) Blake, Toxie and I @ the Plaza for a screening of "The Toxic Avenger".

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable. A new women in prison film (WIP for short) starring Karen Black, Mink Stole and one of the Go-Go's was shot less than two hours away from me and I didn't even know about it! I consider it a lost opportunity. I'm currently developing a nice, dark bruise on my left leg from kicking myself repeatedly with my right.

STUCK!, written and directed by Steve Balderson (PEP SQUAD, FIRECRACKER), is a gorgeous, black-and-white noir character piece that feels less like an homage and more like a newly discovered classic in the babes-behind-bars genre. Whereas Barak Epstein's PRISON A GO-GO opted to go the route of parody (owing more to Troma than to, say, the late Cirio H. Santiago), Balderson's film adheres closely to the things that make a great WIP flick, taking a serious and reverent approach resulting in a solid movie that truly delivers a punch. If you're looking for frequent shower scenes and cat fights, you won't find them here. Think pre-Laura Gemser and-pre Linda Blair and you're on the right track.

Starina Johnson plays Daisy, a lily-white, virginal young woman accused of murdering her invalid mother. Thanks to the eye witness testimony of a nosy neighbor lady (Karen Black), Daisy is wrongly convicted and sentenced to die by hanging. Once she gets locked down, we're introduced to the small group of prisoners who constitute the rest of the principal cast, and the requisite sadistic guard nicknamed Amazon (Stacy Cunningham). It's at this point the film really becomes a stage play, the intimate setting and proximity of the players serving to inhibit the growth of Daisy's character. Through her interactions with the other women and a polarizing experience at the gallows, it becomes evident that Daisy's life truly begins when she's facing death as a short-timer.

The main focus here is on the performances, and each leading lady has more than enough to chew on thanks to some well-developed writing. Balderson, together with writers Frank Krainz and Jon Niccum, add modern edge to the retro proceedings by throwing in occasional bits of dialog that include terms like "crack snacker", "tampon socket" and "finger blaster", but things never become self aware or tongue in cheek. It's played so straight, at times I forgot I was watching a new movie. Karen Black is left to do her trademark weird, internalized melodrama while Mink Stole rattles off faux speeches on morality, uttering lines like, "It isn't right for a Christian to pay taxes" that would fit nicely into a classic John Waters picture. Susan Traylor's monologue about murdering all of her husbands is a show-stopper, and the sex-through-bars sequence between Johnson and Pleasant Gehman (in my favorite performance of the entire film) is hot enough to make Doris Wishman proud.

Given the category of film it fits into, STUCK! contains several moments that hit hard, making it actually better than most of the movies that inspired it. Balderson's choice of a small cast and keeping the action contained to a minimal setting not only works to maintain the atmosphere of being locked in a jail cell, but it necessitates a great deal of creativity from a film making point of view. The fact that the movie works so well falls squarely on the shoulders of the actors, but competent camera work and editing (and some truly impressive lighting) aid in solidifying the feel of a true cult gem. Watching it is not unlike seeing SPIDER BABY, FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! or THE SADIST for the first time. You go in expecting a cheesy fun time, but it doesn't take long before you're completely gripped by what you're seeing.