Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Movies Worth Googling: Strange Movie Reviews by Jenny Orosel

“That Was Our First Encounter With Disco Mutants”: The Future That Never Was

There’s a few thousand billboards across the United States announcing the Rapture as coming on May 20, 2011 (presumably, he doesn’t care if any Australians are saved and has chosen not to warn them). Mind you, the same man, Harold Camping, also predicted the same end of the universe in 1994. As the day gets closer, he has been at the center of much mocking. However, Camping isn’t the first man to make failed predictions of our doomed future.

In 1970, director Peter Watkins made a chilling movie called "Punishment Park". The premise is that , in the near future (meaning 1973 or 1974) anti-war demonstrations have gotten too big, and President Nixon has invoked the McCarran Internal Security Act, allowing for prison camps to be created for those believed to be a risk to national security, either by act or by thought. If convicted of crimes against the nation, a person is given a choice between a prison term at a Federal prison, or a round of playing "Punishment Park". The game of "Punishment Park" is simple—the inmates have three days to race 56 miles across the desert with no food, water or shelter, with police and the military in pursuit, to reach a flag, thus earning their freedom. If they fail, they must serve out their sentence. These camps serve as both punishment to the inmates and training for law enforcement. As of the time of the movie, nobody is known to have won at "Punishment Park". The inmates featured have committed crimes ranging from being Conscientious Objectors to inciting dissidence by either song or writings. As the movie goes on, we learn that the game is rigged so it is impossible for anyone to win, and the inmates aren’t merely captured; none will make it out alive.

This movie is easy to toss aside as a “future that never happened” because, well, it didn’t. Nixon wasn’t even president much after the release of the movie. The camps were never created, and the military were never given free rein to murder whichever citizens they saw fit. However, the fear still exists in Americans, forty years later. After 9/11, there were a lot of liberals who feared Bush would invoke Martial Law and arrest anyone who spoke out against him. Today, during the Obama administrations, many pundits have “warned” the public that he plans on making concentration camps and lock up all the conservatives. The specific world of "Punishment Park" never happened, but the fear is still real among many. As each old president leaves office, we can point and say, “See, the fears were unfounded. It didn’t happen,” but a new group will still have the same fears with the next leader down the line.

"Dead End Drive In", an Australian movie from 1986, has all sorts of instigators for its dystopian world. Riots, nuclear accidents, economic crashes occurring between 1988 and 1990 have created a world where streets are overrun with layabouts obsessed with cars. Car culture has taken over so much that lethal accidents are commonplace. Luckily, this means being a tow truck driver can lead to a comfortable life. Our hero, Crabs, dreams of being a tow truck driver like his brother but just can’t quite get it together. To take his mind off their troubles, Crabs and his girlfriend Carmen go to the drive-in theatre. Luckily there’s an “Unemployed” discount. Only too late does he realize the drive-in is actually a camp for the unemployed. There’s no evil tortures going on, it’s more of a welfare slum. Food is provided, showers are provided, blankets are available. You sleep in your car. It’s its own insulated community. Most everyone there is happy with the way things are. Not Crabs. He wants to escape. But how? His tires were stolen, and you’re only allowed to drive out of the drive-in.

"Dead End Drive In" was based on a Peter Carey short story. In the story, Crabs, through sheer will, turns himself into a tow truck, drives out of the camp, realizes the outside world is bleak and empty, tries to return to the camp and is no longer allowed inside. I think that would have made an awesome end to the movie. Instead, the movie Crabs steals a cop car and dramatically drives through a neon sign, bursting his way to freedom. A whole different affirmation of the power of the individual. I dig that. The futuristic world, that fails. It fails not just because twenty one years have passed and it never came to pass. It fails on many parts. Good luck finding ANY drive in theatre that has survived. Even in the world of the 80s in which this movie was created, drive in theatres were already on the wane, so that was faulty observation on the director’s part there. The question that bothered me most through this movie, though, is that these drive ins/camps were all over Australia, each holding thousands of people. Yet, word never got out of their existence? How could NO ONE be aware that so many people went to the drive in movies and never came back? Still, it’s a fun little time capsule into the 80s with the pseudo punk/new wave fashions and electropop soundtrack.

A year before "Dead End Drive In", Albert Pyun directed a little flick called "Radioactive Dreams". According to the prologue, every nuclear bomb in the world was dropped in 1996…all of them, except for one, for which the keys were lost and never found. When the bombs started flying, two five year old boys were locked in a bomb shelter by their fathers. Fourteen years later, the fathers had never returned and the boys decide to leave the shelter and explore the world outside. In the absence of parents, the two had only their books to raise them. They were private eye books. The two, now men named Philip and Marlowe, are all decked out as you would expect the best 50s Private Dicks to be dressed. They find a car, start it up, and head out to both explore and maybe find their fathers. Along the way they come across a biker gang of bald new wavers, homicidal disco mutants, cannibal hippies and come in possession of the keys to the last nuclear bomb. Oh, and they meet their fathers who never give a reason why they never came back.

"Radioactive Dreams" falls squarely into the subgenre of “Cinema du WTF”. This was not a future that was to happen, a warning of what we could become. No, this movie was simply an exercise in absurdity. Nothing is answered, and if you give yourself time to stop and think, there are a LOT of questions you can come up with. Luckily, it is so fast paced that you really don’t get a chance to think. Pyun, who had previously made "The Sword and the Sorcerer" (1982) and went on to direct the 1990 version of "Captain America", seemed to want nothing more from this movie than to make a fun, and often silly, ride. He succeeded immensely.

Mind you, these futures didn’t come to pass. That doesn’t necessarily mean they never will. Perhaps those prison camps for thought crimes will open up with the next administration. Or maybe the megaplex theatres will become the slums of the poor and jobless. And for all I know we are a meager five years from Disco Mutants terrorizing our roads. And Harold Camping might be right, and the world will end May 21st. In that case, you aren’t reading this and I wasted my time running spell check. Damn.
(NOTE TO READERS: In case you haven't noticed, the world did not end as prophesized by Camping...not even a decent zombie apocalypse, much to this editor's disappointment.)

"Punishment Park" is available, but not usually at places like your neighborhood Best Buy. A copy from EBay or Amazon will run you between 10 and 15 dollars.
"Dead End Drive In" recently went out of print, but copies can be found for less than five dollars.
"Radioactive Dreams" was never released on DVD, at least not yet. There is a rumor floating around that it will be released directly from the director, but I have been unable to confirm this by the press date of this piece. It is, however, on VHS if you still have one of the players lying around.

--Jenny Orosel