The Independent (2000)

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In our attempts to crack open the mysteries behind our current Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s basic cable oddity Highway to Hell, Britnee mentioned that it was the only film she could recall that featured all four members of the Stiller clan. Thanks to a helpful recommendation from a reader (thanks Tom!) we now have another entry to add to that list. Jerry Stiller, his wife Ann Meara, and their children Ben & Amy also all appear in the 2000 indie comedy (appropriately-titled) The Independent. To discuss The Independent solely in terms of its relationship to Highway to Hell, however, would be doing the film a huge disservice. It’s so much better than that. I went into the film expecting a few decent one-off gags from the always-dependable Jerry, but I left completely in love.

In The Independent, Jerry Stiller plays Morty Fineman, a Roger Corman archetype who’s made a career out of schilling an endless stream of schlock for decades on end. Unlike Corman, who is generally calm on the surface but expressive in his filmmaking, Stiller is on the same violently explosive vibe he brought to his role as Frank Constanza on Seinfeld. He also (for the most part) lacks Corman’s thirst for making art films, like The Masque of the Red Death, and sticks mostly to genre fare that’s main selling point is “tits, ass, and bombs”. Although Corman himself appears in the film (along with former cronies Peter Bogdanovich & Ron Howard) to offer the film a touch of credibility, Stiller’s protagonist is less of an homage to that single filmmaker, but more of a ZAZ-type spoof of the entirety of schlock directors from Russ Meyer to The Golan-Globus folks to anyone who’s ever made a blacksploitation film (and even Fred Williamson appears in the film to afford credibility on that end). Morty Fineman is the entire B-movie industry wrapped up into one convenient, hilarious package.

A lot of the soul of The Independent is in the brief clips & promotional material for Morty’s work. There’s a Meyer-esque sexploitation pic about an eco-friendly biker girl gang, a wonderful mushroom cloud pun mockup for a film called LSD-Day, a Fred Williamson-falls-in-love-with-a-soul-sister-robot blacksploitation flick called Foxy Chocolate Robot, etc. I counted at least fifteen of these schlock spoofs represented in brief clips & there are endless dozens of more ideas listed in a “complete filmography” that rolls in tandem with the end credits. Each idea plays just as well as you’d expect from a film that boasts a cast with its roots both the cult sketch comedy legends The Ben Stiller Show & Mr. Show (Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Janeane Garafalo, Brian Posehn, etc.). I don’t think there was a two minute stretch of the film when I wasn’t at least chuckling & a large part of that success was due to how well disperser these schlock spoofs are. They’re evenly spaced from beginning to end with only the flimsiest of narrative glue about Fineman’s struggle in his old age to climb out of financial ruin either by filming a morally-reprehensible musical about a serial killer or accepting a film festival gig in a shithole town he dubs “Blowjob, Nevada.”

At the time of its release, reviews on The Indepenent were mixed at best, but I honestly believe it was ahead of its time. If pitched in the current climate, it would make for a knock-out HBO comedy series. Its mockumentary format, improve-based looseness, tendency towards one-off gags & celebrity cameos, and loveable reprobate of a protagonist would all play perfectly into the modern HBO comedy. It’s likely that the other Stiller clan affair, Highway to Hell, will remain in obscurity for the foreseeable future, but I like to imagine that The Independent still has a chance to achieve a cult classic status. It’s a wonderful little love-letter to the shlock movie industry that recognizes its faults (like the literally fatal risks of some of the less-than-safe sets) as much as its glorious heights. I’m not going to pretend to know the entirety of Jerry Stiller’s career, but I will say this is the best feature-length vehicle I’ve ever seen for his brand of comedy. Out of respect for the comedian & respect for schlock as a medium, I plan on making this film a frequent recommendation to help keep its name alive. So, if you also have respect for either or just love a well-executed comedy sketch (or a dozen), I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. It’s damn funny.

-Brandon Ledet

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

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I had previously written on this site that the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was looking to crowdfund an American theatrical release, a campaign that was ultimately a success. I wrote that the movie “promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Having now actually seen What We Do in the Shadows, I am happy to report that the film not only met those expectations, but even greatly exceeded them. The most essential success of the film, however, was not what it had to add to the vampire genre, but just that it was simply riotously funny from start to finish.

Most of my favorite mockumentaries, titles like Best in Show & Drop Dead Gorgeous, aren’t necessarily well-told stories about personal growth and lessons learned. Instead, they’re more or less glimpses into the lives of already well-established characters as they prepare for a major life event, for instance a dog show or a beauty pageant. Staying true to that format, What We Do in the Shadows follows the lives of a small group of vampire roommates in the months leading up to their biggest annual celebration: The Unholy Masquerade, a grand party for the local undead. The Unholy Masquerade mostly serves as a climactic device that brings the film’s slowly boiling conflicts to a head, but what’s much more important is the characters that the “documentary” crew (who wear crucifixes for protection) follow in the months leading up to the event.

The film’s central vampire coven is a small crew consisting of an 18th century dandy, a torture-obsessed pervert, a 183 year old “young bad boy”, and an 8000 year old Nosferatu type named “Petyr”, who terrifies even his own undead flatmates. The group is mostly a collection of goofs, very much delusional in their outsized egos (a common trope in these Guest-style comedies), but also a true, formidable treat who fly, hypnotize, transform into bats & other creatures, and frequently murder unsuspecting victims with their incredibly sharp fangs. It’s a brilliant subject for an awkward comedy mostly concerned with trivial conflicts like a flatmate who doesn’t pull his weight on the chore wheel, the struggles of an active nightlife when you have to be formally invited into bars, meekly asking Petyr to sweep up the skeletons in his room, and struggling to adapt to the addition of a boisterous 5th roommate who shouts “I’m a vampire!” in public even more liberally than Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. There’s some strange, ambitious concepts allowed by the film’s subject, like the existence of Hitler’s secret vampire army or depressed vampires wistfully watching footage of the sunrise on YouTube. It’s the clash of these ideas with the mundanity of modern life that make the film something special, like when one flatmate angrily shouts, “Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”

Co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords fame) have crafted a thoroughly funny film here that I expect to revisit often. They have added a few updates to the mockumentary format, like the inclusion of some reality show beats, but for the most part the film is a very straightforward genre execution. It just also happens to be a very funny one. What We Do in the Shadows is as great as a vampire mockumentary could possibly be. An exceptionally funny comedy overstuffed with loveable, but deeply flawed characters (they are bloodthirsty murderers after all) and endlessly quotable zingers, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more rewatchable execution of its basic concept. In other words, it’s an instant classic.

-Brandon Ledet