Episode #98 of The Swampflix Podcast: Head (1968) & Psychedelic Musicals

Welcome to Episode #98 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-eighth episode, Brandon is joined by Aaron Armstrong of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the stoney-baloney world of psychedelic musicals, with a particular focus on The Monkees’ irreverent war protest freak-out Head (1968). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Aaron Armstrong

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015)

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fourstar

Don’t be fooled by its meme-minded title. Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a powerful documentary that offers a fascinating history lesson of Romanian oppression in the mid 1980s. I’d place it up there with Corman’s World & the Golan-Globus doc as a means to get excited about the potency & cultural significance of trashy 70s & 80s action cinema as a form of high art. Hell, it might be one of the best documentaries about cinema as a powerful form of storytelling & a source of comradery in an even more general sense. The film’s title recalls the proto-meme of Chuck Norris jokes that flooded the internet in the early 2000s, but it actually has very little to do with the content of this work as a whole. There’s a great deal more going on here.

Under the totalitarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1980s, Romanian citizens lived a very hushed, secluded life. Foreign media was severely censored & everyone under Ceaușescu’s rule feared surveillance from the government’s secret police force. Almost all entertainment available to the Romanian consumer was some form of government-sanctioned propaganda. VHS cassettes changed all that. Almost overnight a black market for foreign (mostly Hollywood) films began smuggling VHS contraband into Romanian living rooms like hard drugs or military-grade weaponry. This influx of forbidden art not only gave Romanian citizens access to free speech & expression in a way they hadn’t before experienced under Ceaușescu’s ever-tightening grip; it also opened up a world of travel, wealth, and excess they had been shut off from their country’s restrictive borders (even if it was through passive consumerism). Imagine a county-wide version of The Wolfpack & you’ll have  pretty good idea of what’s being documented here, except there’s a much less participatory/celebratory spirit at its center.

Part of the reason I’m not in love with Chuck Norris vs. Communism‘s title is that it drastically downplays the film’s true hero: Irina Nistor. Nistor risked imprisonment (or worse) by translating American films into Romanian dubs at a bewildering six to ten films a day at her peak. Nistor became the voice of American cinema for Romanian audiences. She voiced every single character in nearly every film illegally distributed. Chuck Norris and similar action stars like Van Damme, Schwarzeneger, and Stallone may have captured the imaginations of Romanian people. Norris’s Golan-Globus production Missing in Action might’ve even been a particular nexus for their dreams of escape & retribution. However, this film is really Irina Nistor’s story. She’s not a name that would do the film any commercial favors, but she is undeniably its most important facet.

As a documentary, Chuck Norris vs. Communism has an interesting way of experimenting with form. It works mostly as an oral history of the underground VHS market as told by the Romanian people who lived it, backed up by a dramatic re-enactment of Irina Nistor’s personal story. This combo recalls the high production values & word-of-mouth narrative of works like The Nightmare & Thin Blue Line, but by far the most interesting aspect of this film is its content, not its form. There’s an inspiring story at work here about the growing political unrest fueled by illegal Movie Night screenings secretly held in Romanian living rooms. The movie works best when it lets this renegade secrecy grow on its own & may over-extend a little in the back end when it claims that smuggled VHS tapes were the spark that eventually flamed into an overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. It’s in the smaller, more intimate moments when Chuck Norris vs. Communism excels, especially when it lets Irina Nistor’s fascinating story & the nostalgic potency of the VHS-grade cinema she translated speak or themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2015)

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“I do believe motion pictures are the significant art form of our time. And I think the main reason is, they’re an art form of movement, as opposed to static art forms of previous times. But another reason that they’re the preeminent art form is they’re part art and part business. They are a compromised art form, and we live in a somewhat compromised time. And I believe to be successful over the long run, unless you’re a Federico Fellini or an Ingmar Bergman or a true genius in filmmaking, you have to understand that you’re working in both an art and a business.” – Roger Corman

There are a few documentaries that might get me as excited about movies as an artform as Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films does (Life Itself & Corman’s World both immediately come to mind), but few elevate the finance side of the business as an artform in itself in the same way. The Israeli-born cousins/filmmakers Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus, who rose to prominence as a pair of real-life Morty Finemans in the 70s & 80s as the heads of the schlock giant Cannon Films, understood the art of finance on an intrinsic level. On the surface Electric Boogaloo is a celebration of the batshit insane catalog the team of Golan-Globus managed to build in their Cannon Films heyday, but the movie also stands as a priceless testament to the importance of turning a profit vs. the secondary concern of making fine art in the film industry. It’s impressive how many of their productions tapped into a surreal, over-the-top headspace far above the “tits & explosions” formula they aimed for, but what’s even more impressive is how these Hollywood outsiders managed to make hundreds of films for American markets in the first place. For a strange, difficult to understand time in cinema’s past, Golan-Globus & Canon films were on top of the schlock world and that success had a lot more to do with their artistry with the dollar than the artistry of what they were doing behind the camera.

The trajectory of Golan-Globus’s success in the film industry is far outside of the norm. After growing up watching American movies in Tel Aviv they started filming cheapies for the Israeli market, lucking out with a huge hit in a picture titled Lemonade Popsicle, a sort of wild teen sex romp, a precursor to Porky’s. With Golan operating the artistic end of their partnership & Globus handling the all-important finance, they decided to chase their dream of making Amercian films with this newfound success. Their first major act was to purchase the production company Cannon Films so that they’d have a sizeable back catalog of works they could sell to independent movie circuits & use the profit to produce their own work. Since their work began in the historically nastiest time for schlock, the 1970s, early Golan-Globus films are heavy on the sex & violence formula for commercial success. Even by the time they were able to produce their first Hollywood film, a sequel to the highly paranoid Charles Bronson shoot-em-up Death Wish, their films gleefully participated in the salacious depictions of sexual assault that make so many B-pictures form that era difficult to stomach. Things got better (or at least more fun) from there once Golan-Globus (foolishly) attempted to outshine major studios, striking a distribution deal with major player MGM & reaching the American movie-going public at large instead of the . . . more grizzled grindhouse crowd.

Their success obviously didn’t last forever, but it’s incredible how they found ways to survive financially in an industry that wanted nothing to do with them. In the early days they would sell a picture to distributors based on the poster & title alone and then turn around to use that profit as funding for getting the picture made at breakneck speed. They’d crank out so many movies in such a short amount of time that there was never any real pressure for a single title to be a success. Often, their plan was to sell a surefire hit as “the engine that would pull the train”, making enough money that they could finance pictures they were more excited about. This rapid production rate would ultimately be their demise as Canon Films expanded too big too fast & eventually collapsed. Golan produced too many films. Globus tied up too much money in purchasing theater chains wholesale. They collectively got too big for their britches when they tried competing with major Hollywood studios in increasingly expensive (and increasingly bizarre) film productions instead of continuing their model of making a torrent of small budget films & hoping one strikes gold. However, what’s most remarkable about Golan-Globus is that they were able to survive in their hostile industry as long as they did, not that they weren’t able to survive forever.

Of course, I can prattle all day about how fascinating the financial end of Golan-Globus’s business partnership was, but the truth is that it’s the films themselves that are the main draw for Electric Boogaloo in terms of entertainment value. The documentary gives off the distinct vibe of drunkenly searching YouTube for bizarre movie trailers after a long night of crazed barhopping. Each film feels more improbable than the last. A Blue Lagoon meets Lawrence of Arabia mashup? Sure. A melting pot Frankenstein monster of equal parts The Exorcist, Flashdance, and ninja-themed martial arts cinema? Why not. Of the few Golan-Globus titles I’ve seen I can confirm that the films are as deliciously inane as they seem from the outside looking in. Masters of the Universe, Over the Top, Invasion USA, Breakin’, Invaders from Mars . . . these are the kind of (to borrow a phrase) over-the-top messes schlock junkies hope for when their combing through B-pictures for the so-bad-it’s good variety. And for every title I’ve already seen & fallen in love with, Electric Boogaloo includes a dozen more than I’m excited to watch ASAP. Of course I want to see Hercules hurl a bear into outer space or some topless sword fighting or the wall-to-wall inanity of big budget epics like The Apple or Lifeforce. As one interviewee puts it, “What [Golan-Globus] didn’t have in taste, they made up for in enthusiasm.” Electric Boogaloo does a great job of representing this enthusiasm at every turn, making Cannon Films look like the greatest show on Earth, a runaway circus of schlock.

If there’s one moment in Electric Boogaloo that captures Golan-Globus in a nutshell, it’s the last minute revelations that the famed producers refused to be interviewed for the film & rushed to complete their own documentary on Canon Films three months prior to this one’s release. Their refusal to work within the system (or to be shut out by it), their enthusiasm for producing relative work in a short amount of time, and their shrewd business sense are all captured perfectly in that factoid. It’s a piece of trivia that’s oddly endearing & more than a little insane, the exact qualities one looks for in a Cannon classic.

-Brandon Ledet

Masters of the Universe (1987)

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I was a huge He-Man fan as a kid. Huge. The biggest. My light-up, plastic He-Man sword that made electronic clashing noises when you banged it against imagined enemies & inanimate objects was a prized possession. That is, until I moved onto the next well-marketed obsession: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, WWF, whatever. It’s curious that although I watched the cartoon religiously & loved my plastic sword that bellowed “By the power of Greyskull!” when you pressed the right button on the handle, I somehow never watched the He-Man movie (not that I can remember, anyway). Promised by infamous schlock producers Golan-Globus to be “the Star Wars of the 80s”, 1987’s Masters of the Universe bombed. Hard. Critics hated it. It failed to make a profit. It still, nearly three decades later, holds a mere 17% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer. In short, the film was & remains a failure.

Well, at least Golan-Globus & the Canon Group got the Star Wars claim partly right. Sure,  the film was far from the technical marvel, financial goldmine, or cultural landmark that Star Wars was, but Masters of the Universe at least made its best effort to mimic the visual style of the George Lucas classic. While the film was at it, it was also keen to borrow some visual ideas from Jack Kirby. And the covers to oldschool fantasy novel paperbacks & story records. The resulting aesthetic is a fascinating mix of bleep-bloop sci-fi machines & the medieval sorcery of skulls, magical crowns, and wizard staffs. Masters of the Universe excels most in costume in set design. Yes, you can see constant Star Wars reminders in the format of the opening credits & costuming (“These soldiers aren’t Star Trooper knockoffs! They’re uniforms are black! They’re different!”), as well as Skeletor’s irrefutable Darth Vader vibes, but there’s oh so much more going on. Besides the medieval wizardry adding an extra layer of visual cool (I’m serious!) to the Star Wars appropriation, the film is also bold enough to take the freakshow on the road. He-Man (played by a perfectly cast Dolph Lundgren) & his three intergalactic cohorts take a trip through a portal (somewhat resembling God’s anus) that results in their arrival in 1980s California. By the time Skeletor & his cronies arrive in a morbid parade procession in downtown Los Angeles, bent on world domination, the film reaches its full potential as a goofy trifle trying to modernize/cash in on that Star Wars magic.

The reasons why large stretches of the He-Man movie are set in America, even outnumbering the scenes set in the fictional land of Eternia, don’t really matter. There’s a MacGuffin called “The Cosmic Key” (presumably the same one that provides motivation for pro wrestler Stardust) that lands He-Man & his crew in California, but it honestly doesn’t amount to much significance. Masters of the Unvierse is far more entertaining if you clear your mind of plot-related concerns & focus on the ridiculous visual feast laid before you. For instance the question of why He-Man would bring a sword to a laser fight isn’t nearly as satisfying as the cartoonish spectacle of He-Man weilding a sword in a laser fight. The exact reasons why Skeletor’s third act acquisition of grand galactic power would transform his costume into a golden, intergalactic, imperial ensemble that feels like the best Jack Kirby knockoff to ever grace the silver screen don’t matter nearly as much as the image itself, which is a wonder to behold, however brief.

Similiarly, it would be smart for dedicated fans of the He-Man cartoon (if they’re still out there) to disregard all plot & character details they remember from the television show. Instead of the all-powerful Sorceress’ gigantic eagle headdress, she wears a complex crystal crown. There’s no mention of He-Man’s gigantic feline sidekick Cringer/Battle Cat. Nor is there any mention of He-Man’s “true” identity, Adam, which is really just He-Man wearing more clothes than usual (not that his own parents can recognize him in his skimpy costume). Gone also is He-Man’s awful Prince Valliant haircut. It’s kind of interesting what elements do remain of the original cartoon, however accidental. Many of the episodes of the original show consist largely of He-Man & pals searching for one thing or another instead of actually battling Skeletor & his evil gang. In the movie, this search happens to be a pursuit for the Cosmic Key. Curiously, what also remains from the show is the oddball sexuality seeping through the characters’ skimpy costumes & penchants for sadomasochistic torture. Very early in the film it becomes apparent that Masters of the Universe is just as interested in He-Man’s pectoral muscles as Russ Meyer would’ve been if they happened to be gigantic breasts. There’s also a scene where our hero (who Liz Lemon would almost certainly refer to as a “sex idiot”) is getting beaten at Skeletor’s command that I’m pretty sure has inspired a new fetish in me: laser whips.

However, a lot of what makes Masters of the Universe a fun watch, besides the surprising high quality of its set & costume design as well as its visual effects, is when it disregards its source material & basic reason completely. For instance, once The Cosmic Key is in the hands of a bonehead Californian musician, its keys are revealed to have musical tones to them that allow it to be played like a synth. Because of this detail, it’s rock & roll that saves the day just as much as, if not more than, He-Man. With some goofy rock & roll/medieval space wizard culture clashes like this, combined with roles filled by Lundgren, Billy Barty, and Courtney Cox, as well as some super cool villains that include a humanoid lizard, a werewolf-looking beast thing, a humongous bat, and their space age Rob Halford friend, Masters of the Universe makes for a really goofy picture. The visual accomplishments occasionally elevate the material, but it’d be untruthful to sell the film as being good for anything but a lark. Fans of shoddy Star Wars knockoffs, 80s cheese, and Jack Kirby cosplay are all likely to find something of value here. I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the He-Man film as I used to be about my toy He-Man sword (how could I be?), but I ended up enjoying it far more than I expected.

-Brandon Ledet

Invaders from Mars (1986)

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threehalfstar

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When I first watched Invaders from Mars, I was expecting (based on title alone) the kind of black & white 50s sci-fi cheapie you’d typically find playing on late night television. It turns out that the DVD copy I had purchased on a whim was actually a remake of such a movie. The original Invaders from Mars film was a rushed 1953 production meant to beat War of the Worlds to the punch of showing extraterrestrial invaders on screen in color for the first time ever. What I had in my hands had even stranger origins, however. Not only was the 1986 Invaders from Mars produced by Golan-Globus, one of the era’s finest peddlers of over-the-top schlock (with titles like Invasion USA & Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo lurking in their extensive catalog), but it was also directed by Tom Hooper, who is most widely known for bringing the world The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Poltergeist. The result of that powerful genre movie combo & the production’s 50s schlock origins is a fun little cartoon of a sci-fi horror teeming with wholesome camp & decidedly unwholesome practical effects.

Invaders from Mars comes from a nice little sweet spot in 80s cinema where movies ostensibly aimed at little kids were more than eager to scare its pintsized audience shitless. Although the film boasts the general vibe of a Goosebumps paperback about parents & teachers turned into aliens, it’s also crawling with hideous, handmade creature effects worthy of any adult’s sweatiest nightmare. Released just a year after Joe Dante’s wonderful film Explorers, Invaders mimics that film’s child-meets-alien dynamic, but adds a much more twisted, grotesque layer to the exercise. It’s not only smart enough to acknowledge its roots in 50s schlock, but also to update that aesthetic to a more modern, more terrifying approach to children’s horror media that unfortunately has faded out of fashion in the decades since.

When I was a kid my favorite films used to scare the crap out of me (Monster Squad, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, etc) and I have no doubt that if I had seen the 1980s Invaders from Mars at the time it’d have been among my most cherished VHS selections. As is, I appreciate it a great deal for its combination of childlike wonder & hideous alien beasts. This isn’t an Invasion of the Body Snatchers kind of film that’s going to earn any accolades as the heights of the alien invasion genre, but it is a surprisingly fun & wickedly dark little love letter to camp cinema from a crew of 70s & 80s weirdos who themselves know a thing or two about memorable camp cinema.

-Brandon Ledet