Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, April 8, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1976)

Of all the fan-favorite horror director to emerge out of the seventies and eighties, Joe Dante has always been the most unabashed about his love of classic cinema. The guy has peppered everyone of his movies with references and throwbacks to classic sci-fi/horror films or Loony Tunes cartoons. This is, after all, a guy who started his career by editing a four-hour long compilation of trailers and film clips called "The Movie Orgy." While some of his films have been hugely successful, others have were destined to become cult classics. This is one I've been looking forward to doing for a while so let's get started.

1. Hollywood Boulevard
Co-directed with Allan Arkush

If you know anything about Joe Dante's career, you know he got his start working for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Dante would join New World around the same time as “The Movie Orgy” co-creator, Jon Davison. Soon, Dante and Allan Arkush went to work as trailer editors for the company. The two graduated to director status only because Davison made a bet with Corman, that he could make the cheapest New World production ever. In order to come in under the 60,000 dollar budget Corman allowed, the movie would have to utilize a lot of stock footage from other New World productions. So it stands to reason that the company's veteran trailer editors would be scooped up to build a movie largely around pre-existing footage. Now, the question must be asked if “Hollywood Boulevard” is especially interesting outside of this origin story.

Candy Wednesday comes to Hollywood with dreams of being a movie star. The reality, it turns out, is not so glamorous. She soon finds an agent in the form of Walter Paisley. After accidentally assisting in a bank robbery, Paisley gets her a job as a stuntwoman for Miracle Productions. Miracle is a low budget company specializing in exploitation films. Candy is selected as an actress because women on Miracle's shoots keep dying mysteriously. Despite striking up a relationship with screenwriter Patrick, Candy soon becomes tired of starring in sleazy motion pictures. And that's before the killer begins to target her as well.

Roger Corman wanted to call this film “Hollywood Hookers,” which sounds like one of the sexploitation comedies New World was cranking out at the time. (Dante has conceded the movie probably would’ve been more profitable with this title.) “Hollywood Boulevard,” the title Dante and Arkush fought for, hearkens back to a much earlier time in cinema. It’s clear the filmmakers were influenced by films like “What Price Hollywood?” or the original “A Star is Born.” The film tells a similar story, of a small town girl coming to L.A. in hopes of reaching stardom, struggling with the hard facts, but eventually reaching the A-list anyway. “Hollywood Boulevard” is as much parody as homage to these rise-to-fame stories but the connection is clear anyway.

Of course, there’s a big difference between the glitzy Hollywood studios those classic films revolved around and the kind of company Miracle Productions is. “Hollywood Boulevard” was written by Danny Opatoshu, previously of “Night Call Nurses” and “The Student Teachers.” Yet it’s clear that Dante and Arkush are calling upon their experiences working in the New World Pictures trenches here. “Hollywood Boulevard” works best as an absurdist comedy about making low budget, exploitation films. Actresses are chosen because of their bra sizes. The cast members are forced to crawl through the mosquito-infested jungles of the Philippines, before they even get to the set. The scripts are so formulaic, they’re cranked out on a weekly basis. The sleazy conditions and non-existent production values stand in contrast to the pretensions of the cast and crew, who act as if they are making serious, world-changing art. It’s very evident that working for Miracle Productions, a company just shy of being an elaborate con, wasn’t that different from working for New World Pictures.

This objective, of gently mocking the studio the filmmakers worked for, produces an atmosphere of goofy comedy. There’s a lot of decent laughs in this film. Dante’s Loony Tunes influence is evident even this early. When a skydiving stunt goes wrong in the opening scene, it leaves a perfectly person-shaped hole in the ground. A last minute decision to turn a gangster picture into a sci-fi movie results in actors in cheap monster costumes, wandering around a western set in confusion. An extra from the blood-splattered finale of a women-in-prison pours some ketchup on his costume to add realism. A random scumbag busts out some king-fu moves. One of the best reoccurring jokes involves the desperate talent Candy’s agent books. Among these is an elephant that, if you listen closely to the radio in one scene, then stars in an exploitation flick of his own.

As much as Dante and Arkush set out to make a goofy comedy, “Hollywood Boulevard” still had to meet the demands of a seventies sleaze-fest. So there’s a lot of T&A in “Hollywood Boulevard.” We are talking long sequences devoted to wet T-shirt contests or the starlets sunbathing while topless. At least one of the actresses is introduced with her shirt off. Miracle’s films naturally feature lots of nudity. This good-natured naughtiness occasionally veers in a more mean-spirited direction. Such as a production manager lying to two comely young ladies, strictly so he can sleep with them. Or a filmed raped scene being allowed to get out of control. When Candy watches that scene at the drive-in, she confronts the projectionist... Who then attempts to rape her. Who is later assisted by another man who enters the scene. This sequence also features a homophobic slur being tossed out of the blue. These nastier moments, though typical of New World at the time, stick out badly in an otherwise goofy film.

In fact, “Hollywood Boulevard” is prone to some weird tonal shifts. While the movie’s content is generally absurd, it plays Candy’s disappointment at her career totally straight. This is how we get scenes of her sitting on the Hollywood sign, looking out over the city in despair. When an actress is killed during filming, her death scene is treated seriously... Before the movie proceeds onto its next comedic sequence. In its last third, the movie even makes some unexpected attempts at horror. One of the starlets is pursued through a nighttime set by the knife-wielding killer in David Carradine’s “Death Race 2000” costume. That scene is actually pretty effective, as out-of-place as it is, and feels like Dante and Arkush putting their spin on the only-beginning-to-emerge slasher subgenre.

As a display for its directors’ talent, “Hollywood Boulevard” is quite successful. For a movie built around stock footage and made for less than 60,000 dollars, it looks pretty good. There’s a definite energy to the scenes of the girls shooting their machine guns or the climatic fight among the Hollywood sign. You can even figure out which director handled which scene. A performance by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, captured energetically with lots of fast-paced editing, seems to be a precursor to Arkush’s work on “Rock n’ Roll High School.” That horror-like stalking scene, with its moody shots of billowing fog, can reasonably be deduced to be Joe Dante’s work. Regardless of who directed what, it’s impressive the directors took pretty much nothing and managed to make something.

Both directors made their mark on the film but one particular habit of Dante’s is especially evident. “Hollywood Boulevard” is packed with references to classic sci-fi/horror cinema. Dick Miller reprises his “A Bucket Of Blood” role of Walter Paisley for the first of many times. Robby the Robot also makes his first of several cameos in Dante’s films, though without Marvin Miller’s echoing voice. (Future director William Malone provides the voice, one of several behind-the-scenes cameos that include Forrest Ackerman and Lewis Teague.) The plot was inspired by old Bela Lugosi flick, “The Death Kiss.” The filmmakers lampshade this by featuring Lugosi’s Walk of Fame star during the opening credits. The women-in-prison flick Miracle makes is named “Machete Maidens of Mora Tau,” a nod at “Zombies of Mora Tau.” Among the alien costumes during the sci-if scene are obvious homages to “The Fly,” “Robot Monster,” and Godzilla. It’s clear, even during his first feature, Joe Dante could barely contain his movie nerd enthusiasm.

These are far from the only in-jokes cult movie fans will notice. If you've seen other New World movie, there's a good chance you'll recognize some of the stock footage here. Some of these are subtle. The combat scenes are taken from a variety of Philippine-lensed flicks, like “The Big Bird Cage,” “The Hot Box,” or “Savage!” Sometimes, the movie will include sequences simply to take advantage of some stock footage. This is why a cobra randomly appears, why the movie opens with sky-diving, or why one of the girls is a former roller derby girl. Other times, there's no getting around the recycled footage. The entire bank robbery subplot, never mentioned again, is to justify footage from “Crazy Mama.” Candy begins as a stunt woman so footage from “Big Bad Mama” can be used. The “Death Race 2000” cars and costumes are utilized extensively in the last third. The characters visit the drive-in strictly so the characters can watch “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “The Terror” – which co-stars Dick Miller, which the film has to comment on – riffing on the film like a prototype to “MST3k.”

Roger Corman wanted Roberta Collins, a regular in New World's women-in-prison films, to star as Candy. Dante and Arkush, meanwhile, stumped for Candice Rialson, previously of “Candy Stripe Nurses” and “Summer School Teachers.” The part might have even been written for her, as Rialson was credited as “Candy” in some of her earlier films. Either way, I think the directors made the right choice. Rialson is charming, with the kind of beauty that obviously appealed to New World producers but also a certain girl-next-door charm. She has a solid delivery, getting a few laughs just from the way she speaks. She certainly conveys the character's arc, of going from a naive girl full of dreams to someone hardened by disappointment.

No matter who starred in the film, the supporting cast was always going to steal the show. Dick Miller is hilarious as Walter Paisley. Miller's slightly crabby and sleazy charm is especially on-display here, as Paisley will sign up absolutely regardless of how much or little talent they have. Yet he also has a sweet, as he genuinely cares about Candy. This is also the film that launched Paul Bartel's acting career, which overshadowed his directing career to a degree. Bartel is hilarious as a director who takes himself way too seriously. Yet he's also weirdly dismissive of the well-being of his actors, showing no shock or pain when one dies. Mary Woronov is equally hilarious as the film's antagonist, an especially bitchy actress who only grows more unhinged as things progresses. Their best scenes are improvised interviews they give tot he camera, rattling off hugely pretentious lines.

Ultimately, ”Hollywood Boulevard” feels a bit uneven. While the film definitely has some laughs, as well as a number of appealing performers, it can't quite hold together as a motion picture. Some sequences are a little mean-spirited, others feel at odds with the movie's overall goofy tone. Yet, considering the background, that this is a movie that exist totally to fulfill a bet and take advantage of a surplus of stock footage, it turned out pretty well. Dante and Arkush managed to make a relatively entertaining and funny film. Naturally, since the film was made for so little, “Hollywood Boulevard” would be profitable, launching two careers in the process.  [Grade: B-]

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