"I'll just get my gear."

Worm on a Hook

NOW AVAILABLE TO ORDER

Well, I finally went and did it – I published my new book Worm on a Hook. I want to be a little vague, but basically it’s a horror story about a group of friends who rent a cabin for Memorial Day weekend and run afoul of a seemingly-invincible killer back from the dead. And then, I promise you, it’s on. The goal was to find overlap in the conventions of traditional slasher movies and the ’80s and ’90s action I love, and meld them into one ass-kicking novel. I’m very proud of the results, and I think you’ll not only enjoy the story but get a kick out of spotting the ways I apply concepts from reviews and Seagalogy to my own storytelling.

I hope to find this one a bigger audience than I’ve managed for Niketown, so forgive me for going into promotions mode for a bit and leaving this as a sticky post above the new reviews. I’m available for podcasts and interviews – email me at outlawvern@hotmail.com for inquiries. And if you read it, let me know what you think!

NOTE: If you’re outside of the U.S. your local version of Amazon should have it too – try searching for “worm on a hook vern” to find it.

Modern Vampires

Back in the late ’90s, being a superfan of the SHRUNKEN HEADS mythos, I was excited for a new Richard Elfman/Matthew Bright joint called MODERN VAMPIRES. I found it disappointing at the time – decadent L.A. vampires are not nearly as weird as flying severed head super heroes, so it didn’t make much of an impression. But since I revisited FORBIDDEN ZONE and SHRUNKEN HEADS in close succession this week I decided to also do this one. Now that it’s old I think it plays a little better as a b-movie piss take on the vampire movies that were being made at the time.

Or is that even what it is? When MODERN VAMPIRES went straight to video in the U.S. it was October of ’99 and the cover had a design style and not-screen-accurate fashion flagrantly copying BLADE, but it had actually premiered before both BLADE and John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had already reclaimed bloodsuckers from Anne Rice, though, so I suppose that’s what they’re playing off of, if anything. Or maybe it’s just West Coast elite NEAR DARK. (read the rest of this shit…)

R.I.P. DMX


Man do I hate starting out sentences this way, but rest in peace to DMX, rap icon who wielded the most unwieldy mix of bravado, raw intensity, heart-on-his-sleeve vulnerability and demonic horror in some great and idiosyncratic music. He seemed to appear to us already on top, shocking the world with a completely new sound and cadence. The growls, the chants, the gothic organs, the kids chanting about DMX like he’s Freddy, the catchy anthems that still get our hearts pumping today. But underneath it a sense of sincere anguish and struggle.

In his almost 25 years of music and public life he seemed to always be running from demons, on the brink of possible disaster, yet it feels impossible that they finally caught up with him. From the beginning he talked about pain and fear, he covered himself in blood on an album cover, talked about Hell, gave literal voice to his darkest thoughts, prayed to (and conversed with) God, read sad poems. But he was also known for having fun – praising his friends, driving around on four-wheelers doing wheelies and donuts (a trademark!), boasting, being funny.

And of course he had an action movie period! He just happened to be on the top at the right time to intersect with Joel Silver’s action-star-with-rappers-and-R&B-singers period. So he co-starred with Jet Li and Steven Seagal in roles where he just seemed like DMX, even if his character was, like, a hacktivist. I love that kinda shit – his screen presence was more exciting to me than good acting would’ve been – but he showed much more potential in BELLY, the one movie directed by music video legend Hype Williams. Not everything about the movie works, but it looks absolutely incredible, makes numerous interesting artistic choices and really does harness that raw DMX charisma in a powerful way.

I was so hyped for NEVER DIE ALONE, where he was the lead and stretching himself more, adapting a book by Donald Goins. It didn’t turn out to be what I hoped for at the time, and everyone else seemed to ignore it (though I have since seen it discovered and enjoyed by a few people). Like for most movie star type performers there was kind of a decline in quality, and he was content to just show up in random DTV movies on occasion, more cashing in on his name and face than finding good roles. And that’s fine. I can respect that. His heart was on the mic. Why not also play “Davie” in FAST AND FIERCE: DEATH RACE? I’m sure it was fun.

It was long known that he struggled with addiction and mental health issues that got him into reckless and inexplicable misadventures, but in recent years he appeared to have settled down a little. It seemed like the guy who on his first album said, “And I fear that what I’m saying, won’t be heard until I’m gone / But it’s all good, ’cause I really didn’t expect to live long” was aging into an old legend. Last year I watched him on that Verzuz with Snoop Dogg and it was electric to see the two of them celebrating each others’ life’s work, gushing over each other, dancing around like total dorks.

It made me so happy to watch them like that I actually tried to take some live screengrabs to capture the vibe:

DMX had a belly like a retiree and seemed so humble and flattered, being self-deprecating, almost bashful about the compliments. I hope he was able to enjoy it and really understand how much the world loved him.

Here are my old reviews of some of his movies. They’re not my best or most respectful work. I’ve been thinking about revisiting the Jet Li American period, so maybe I’ll do them more justice next time.

ROMEO MUST DIE
BELLY
NEVER DIE ALONE
CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE
LORDS OF THE STREET

Shrunken Heads

Richard Elfman is the son of novelist Clare Elfman. He grew up in L.A., then worked as an Afro-Latin percussionist in the San Francisco musical theater troupe The Cockettes before moving to Paris to perform, and later returning to form the “commedia dell’arte ensemble” or “surrealist street theatre troupe” The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. They performed Cab Calloway covers and Russian ballet songs in whiteface, won an episode of The Gong Show, released a doo wop song about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and played demons in a hallucination scene in I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN. In the late ‘70s Elfman turned filmmaker, directing the Mystic Knights’ black and white cult musical FORBIDDEN ZONE (released in 1982).

It’s a pretty obnoxious and completely amazing movie, filmed on theatrical sets beautifully designed in a German expressionist/Max Fleischer cartoon style (and sometimes noticeably made of paper). It’s a short but unrelenting burlesque nightmare of tap dancing frogs and skeletons, adults dressed as children and/or only wearing underwear, lots of Mickey Mouse ears, fezzes and boobs, every single character (and there are tons of them) a weirdo or a grotesque caricature. They move bizarrely and at fast speed, lip sync to old timey big band jazz tunes, simulate humping. It stylishly switches to animation as they plummet to Hell or through the intestine shaped tunnel from the Hercules family’s basement to the Sixth Dimension, which is ruled by Susan Tyrrell as the Cruella-meets-drag-queen Queen Doris, and Herve Villechaize as her cheating husband King Fausto.

Elfman’s younger brother Danny made some great songs for it and has a scene as Satan, singing “Minnie the Moocher” with a band of hooded, lumpy ghouls. Joe Spinnell shows up as a sleazy, drunk sailor. To me it’s soiled by its use of historical racist imagery – I know this is vintage hipster irony or some shit, but opening with a blackface pimp character looking for his heroin is a problem. And you also have to be patient with the inside joke art school forced weirdness nonsense humor ethos that thinks it’s hilarious to have  a main character named “Squeezit Henderson,” who has a twin sister played by the same actor, who is credited as “Toshiro Boloney.” (That’s actually Matthew Bright, better known for directing FREEWAY. His well-meaning drama TIPTOES, which infamously co-stars Gary Oldman as a little person, was inspired by the director’s friendship with Villechaize.)

Around that time Richard passed the creative direction of the Mystic Knights to Danny, who soon decided to ditch all the theatrics and strip down to the rock band Oingo Boingo. They became very popular and had songs on movies ranging from WEIRD SCIENCE to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. And during this time, of course, Tim Burton convinced Danny to score PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, which led to other scores, and all the sudden he was an A-list film composer.

Meanwhile, Richard directed a few of the band’s videos, but didn’t make any more movies until 1993, when he resurfaced with a silly but pretty straight forward Mimi Lesseos b-action vehicle I’ve already reviewed called STREETS OF RAGE. For that he was credited as “Aristide Sumatra,” which is the name of a character in his third movie, SHRUNKEN HEADS. Released in 1994, SHRUNKEN HEADS was written by Elfman’s old friend Bright (pre-FREEWAY) and produced by Charles Band and his company Full Moon Entertainment. So you better believe it has some tiny little guys in it. Shrunken, like the title says. (read the rest of this shit…)

Patreon sneak peek: PUMP UP THE VOLUME

Here’s a little behind the scenes thing you probly wouldn’t guess: I have close to 30 reviews I’ve written in the past few years that I’m not ready to post yet. There’s nothing I love more than doing a good themed review series, but I always start working and then get sidetracked on the current reviews or a seasonal series and then I end up starting another series that I don’t finish and then another one. I have several of them in progress and I really need to figure out how to focus and get them off my ledger. The one with the topic I’m most excited about I started writing in 2018 (jesus christ, Vern!), so I’ve been trying to wrap that one up. And then I started writing a franchise series that’s kind of a prequel to that. Sorry.

Anyway, I decided it would be cool to take one that’s not gonna see the light of day any time soon and have it as Patreon exclusive for now. So if you are currently pledging to the Patreon you can read my review of the 1990 teen rebellion pirate radio joint PUMP UP THE VOLUME. And then some day in the next 1 to 25 years you may see it posted here in the context of some other similarly-themed movies.

CLICK HERE TO PUMP UP THAT VOLUME

Promising Young Woman

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is a black comedy I heard some good things about and had been wanting to see for a while and then right around the time it came out on disc it got nominated for best picture, director, original screenplay, actress and editing Oscars. Okay – didn’t know it was gonna be that kind of party, but I’m down.

The movie opens in a bar as three co-worker bros talk shit. One of them (Adam Brody, JENNIFER’S BODY) seems like the nice one, standing up for a female co-worker the other guys are complaining about, and seeming unimpressed by their sexist horndog talk. And of course when they spot Cassie (Carey Mulligan, DRIVE [the Refn one, not the Dacascos one]) so plastered she can barely sit upright on a bench, he’s the one who goes over and tries to make sure she’s okay.

Put quotes on that last phrase. We all kinda know where this is going: he offers her a ride home, playing it like hey, I know what this looks like, but I’m just trying to make sure she gets home safe before some jerk comes along. But the next thing you know it’s why don’t you come up to my apartment and let’s have a drink (!?) and then he’s on top of her taking her clothes off while she asks him what he’s doing and he keeps telling her it’s okay, she’s safe.

And actually she is fairly safe, because as she reveals when she sits up, she’s completely sober. She just has this hobby of faking drunk to see what assholes try to take advantage of her, and then shame them when they do. Try to scare them out of doing it again. Just a weird vigilante crusade of hers. (read the rest of this shit…)

Double Dragon

DOUBLE DRAGON (1994), loosely based on the video game series, is a sci-fi fantasy action kids movie from the director of THE RETURN OF BRUNO and the producers of NATURAL BORN KILLERS. I do not personally consider it to be a good movie, but upon this rewatch I found it somewhat enjoyable on the strength of its specific only-in-the-‘90s strain of complete inexplicability.

It stars Mark Dacascos (a year after ONLY THE STRONG, a year before KICKBOXER 5 and CRYING FREEMAN) and Scott Wolf (the same year Party of Five started) as martial artist brothers, Alyssa Milano (in the window between Who’s the Boss? and EMBRACE OF THE VAMPIRE) as the leader of a vigilante group, and Robert Patrick (who had only done FIRE IN THE SKY and two T-1000 cameos since T2) as an evil gang leader/businessman obsessed with obtaining an ancient Chinese medallion that would give him super powers. It takes place in the cyberpunky post-The-Big-Quake New Angeles in the futuristic year of 2007, with all the satirical billboards and colorful street gangs that implies. (read the rest of this shit…)

King Kong Escapes

Since I dug revisiting the original 1963 version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA I decided to watch the one other time Toho used King Kong, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. I consider this to be Godzilla stepping aside to let his co-lead take the spotlight, but I suppose it’s possible that he just didn’t want to do another one and this is like Paul Walker doing 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS without Vin Diesel.

Like the original GOJIRA, plus KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and many other kaiju classics, KING KONG ESCAPES is directed by Ishiro Honda, with music by Akira Ifukube and effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. But it has a little different vibe, seemingly influenced by spy movies. Tsuburaya’s great model work is used to create lots of cool helicopters, hovercrafts, a submarine, and a structure to house a giant robot. There’s a colorful villain named Dr. Who (Hideyo Amamoto, YOJIMBO, THE SWORD OF DOOM) who wears a cape with a Dracula/Dr. Strange collar and he has a base at the North Pole and an army of employees in nehru suits, white Mickey Mouse gloves and construction helmets. In the American dub he’s voiced by Paul Frees, so you keep expecting him to ask “is this room actually stretching?” (read the rest of this shit…)

Godzilla vs. Kong

GODZILLA VS. KONG follows GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS as the fourth movie in the 21st Century American kaiju series known as The MonsterVerse. When it comes to the giant monsters, as I’ve told you before, I’m a Gamera guy. I’m not trying to be a hipster and choose the less popular thing to show off, it’s just a fact – he’s the Guardian of the Universe. But setting him aside, Godzilla and his Monster Island pals have always interested me more than the King Kong movies, as great as some of those are.

So hopefully that puts some weight behind me saying that this crossover – which stacks the cards for Kong by starting with him, spending much of the movie with him and treating him as the underdog hero – is easily the best of the series.

It got me instantly. Opening with Kong waking up to a perfect needle drop and a sunny day on Skull Island, he scratches his ass as he groggily stumbles to the waterfall for a shower. It’s just a great example of those times I love when monsters just get to live a normal life instead of always leaping through the air and roaring at the camera. (read the rest of this shit…)

King Kong vs. Godzilla

I can’t see the new GODZILLA VS. KONG in a theater, because we still have the pandemic here (and apparently slower vaccine distribution than some other states). But I’m excited to at least get to watch it on TV tonight. I don’t know if it will live up to my hopes, but I’m glad it inspired me to rewatch the original East-meets-West giant monster mashup, 1963’s KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

In my mind it seems like this current GODZILLA series rushed to the KING KONG crossover pretty fast, but not really. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was only the third film in the GODZILLA series (though it also followed the American productions KING KONG and SON OF KONG, both from 1933). As discussed in yesterday’s review, the series started with GOJIRA in 1954, and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN six months later. It wasn’t exactly a smash, so seven years passed before they brought the big guy back. Think about that – seven years is almost as long as the gap between BATMAN & ROBIN and BATMAN BEGINS. Or FRIDAY THE 13TH and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII. About the same as the gaps between A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, or FREDDY VS. JASON and the ELM STREET remake.

So after that wait Toho brought back original director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya (who held KING KONG dear since it had inspired his interest in effects) to revive Godzilla in this big crossover event that marked both monsters’ first appearances in color and in widescreen. Also their first movie that opens with a quote from Hamlet (at least in the American version, which I watched because I didn’t realize the original was hidden in the supplements of the Criterion box set). (read the rest of this shit…)

Godzilla Raids Again

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN seems like an important movie to me because I think it’s the first GODZILLA sequel. GOJIRA was made in response to the popularity of KING KONG and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, but it was a very somber and elegiac disaster movie intentionally using its monster attacks to mirror the bombing of Hiroshima (as well as an incident less known in the U.S. in which a Japanese fishing vessel was radiated by U.S. atomic bomb tests). Its hero was a scientist who sacrifices himself to stop Godzilla without letting his bomb technology to be replicated, and it climaxes with a choir of 200 women singing sadly over long shots of the ruins of Tokyo.

The sequel came out only six months later and is the only other GODZILLA movie in black and white, but it’s the first one where Godzilla fights another monster, so it’s the first to resemble the specific type of fun we’re generally thinking of when we say we liked GODZILLA movies or kaiju movies.

Here’s one way it’s similar to FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2: it’s not the same killer as in part 1. The first Godzilla was definitively killed by the oxygen destroyer, and when what appears to be the same creature is spotted, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, returning from the first film) is sure it’s not a resurrection, but another monster of the same species. Everybody still call him Godzilla like it’s his name, though. (read the rest of this shit…)