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VHS MOVIE REVIEW : THE EDGE OF HELL AKA ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE (1987)
WRITTEN BY 1000MISSPENTHOURS.COM

The late 1980’s were a distressingly long time ago, so permit me to set the stage for those of my readers who don’t clearly remember them first-hand; those who do can either bear with me or skip on ahead. Perestroika, Glasnost, and the approaching end of the Cold War will get all the attention in the history books, of course, but if you were an American teenager in those days, the big event that impacted your life most directly was probably that decade’s great Satanic Panic. It has become commonplace to characterize any hysterical outbreak of political scapegoating as a “witch hunt,” but in this case the term is appropriate in an eerily literal sense. Fundamentalist Protestant whack-jobbery was reaching the apogee of its cultural and political power (Pat Robertson ran for president— president!— not once but twice) just as the snake-oil salesmen of the psychotherapy industry were rolling out their boldest therapeutic scam yet— recovered memory theory. Suddenly the news media were awash with reports that Satanic cults were active in all walks of American life, robbing graves, turning day-care centers into dens of child sex abuse, and holding rituals of human sacrifice in the basements of Elks lodges— the “evidence” for these wild claims stemming mainly from the “recovered” memories of psychiatric patients and their equally suggestible kids. Geraldo Rivera shot a widely aired and patently phony “exposé,” preachers and psychologists wrote scads of books on how to protect your children from the disciples of Hell, and parents across the land dashed off bushels of fretful letters to Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren. And most importantly, ordinary, otherwise seemingly sensible people actually believed this shit!!!! As is so often the case, the most frequent rallying cry of the anti-Satan activists was “for the sake of the children,” and every imaginable form of youth-oriented weirdness came under attack for having supposedly Satanist subtexts. Horror movies, role-playing games, and virtually every genre of anti-establishment music were condemned as recruiting tools of the Satanic conspiracy, but beyond question, the anvil fell hardest on heavy metal.

     To a certain extent, the headbangers really were asking for it, having spent a decade and more gleefully waving the banner of cartoon devil-worship first unfurled by Black Sabbath and their ilk at the turn of the 70’s. It’s hard to blame the squares (the parents, the teachers, the pastors) for being horrified by a display of shock tactics specifically designed to horrify them, after all. But the expressions that horror found rapidly became pathological, insane. Church congregations got together to burn their adolescent offspring’s record collections before the approving gaze of film crews from the local TV news. Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center lobbied Congress to expand its statutory definition of obscenity to encompass Man-o-War albums, and Ozzy Osborne was hit with a wrongful death lawsuit when two parents noticed one of his records on the turntable the night they came home to find their teenage son dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. So far as popular opinion was concerned, heavy metal was quite literally the Devil’s music.

     So against this background, set Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare/The Edge of Hell. On the surface, this is nothing more than an endearingly terrible homebrew horror movie, but in the context of its time, it’s a whole lot more than that. In the context of its time, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is a fucking manifesto!

     It seems pedestrian enough for the first hour or so. A prologue sequence (which is shot with a degree of technical sophistication that is almost totally absent from the rest of the film) has a family of three, living in a farmhouse outside of Toronto, getting ready to start the day. Mom is in the kitchen frying up a pan of hash browns. Dad is upstairs shaving (Eek! Bare-Breasted Countess flashback...), and Junior is in his bedroom reading a comic book. Mom opens up the refrigerator, and is suddenly bathed in an eerie, orange light. When Dad responds to her screams, he finds no sign of her, but there is a skeletal zombie monster lying in ambush in the oven. We may safely imagine what happens to Junior at this point.

     Ten years go by (but not so you’d notice— the fucking tractor is still parked on the exact same patch of perfectly trimmed lawn), and the farmhouse is only just now receiving its new tenants. These tenants are the heavy metal band Triton, together with their various girlfriends and their manager, Phil (uncredited, but process of elimination says he’s Adam Fried, from Student Affairs). The idea here is that the band will spend the next five weeks taking advantage of the seclusion and absence of distraction that the farm offers to refocus themselves on their music and regain their waning edge. Nobody but lead singer and principal songwriter John Triton (Jon-Mikl Thor, about whom we’ll talk at length later) is terribly impressed with this plan, and frankly I can see their point— the whole enterprise reeks of half-measures. I mean, what kind of retreat from the hectic rock and roll lifestyle is it if you’re just down the road from one of the biggest cities in Canada, and you’ve brought all of your chicks with you? For fuck’s sake, bass player Roger (Frank Dietz, of Black Roses and The Jitters)— Roger Eburt, no less— and his squeaky-clean piece of ass (Lian Abel) are taking this trip as their goddamned honeymoon! Christ, even the dimmest rock and roller knows you don’t bring the girls along when you do something like this, even if they aren’t as contentious and divisive as Lou Anne (Jilian Perry), the studiedly obnoxious paramour of faux-Australian drummer Stig (Jim Cirile). And sure enough, the members of Triton will do far more fighting and fucking than they will rocking or rolling over the course of this ill-conceived sabbatical.

     All of which doesn't even begin to address the main problem confronting our heroes, which is that their rented retreat is infested with three or four different varieties of crappy rubber demon. The spawn of Hell first make their presence felt by eliminating and replacing Phil, who is seduced by a demon pretending to be Lou Anne while he rummages for spare drumsticks in the basement of the barn whose main floor the band is using as their rehearsal studio. (Oh, and by the way... if nobody has set foot in this place in ten years, then how in the hell did the managers for Rod Stewart and Alice Cooper arrange to build a 24-track recording studio in the goddamned barn?!?!) Then an assortment of lame rubber zombies and even lamer rubber hand-puppet Cyclopes start popping up to take out the rest of the cast one by one. Along the way, we’ll also be treated to several scenes of the band pounding out some of the material for their new album, and to some of the most terrifying sex scenes in the annals of film. Nothing says “Aaargh! My eyes!” like John Triton and his aptly named girlfriend, Randy (Teresa Simpson, who also had a teeny, tiny role in The Toxic Avenger), getting it on in the shower…

     Like I said, pretty standard thus far, once you get beyond the mostly irrelevant point that all the Expendable Meat either plays in a cock-rock band or is fucking somebody who does. But once the cast has been whittled down to just John Triton, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare takes a turn for the giddily bizarre. Randy, now possessed, corners John in the studio’s control room, where he had been working on a new song. Speaking in that generic, distorted “Ooh, look at me— I’m possessed” voice, Randy taunts her erstwhile love with the deaths of all of his bandmates, but Triton is oddly unconcerned. What’s more, he has suddenly taken to calling Randy “Bub.” Bub? Short for Beelzebub, of course! And just how is it that John Triton, Heavy Metal Dude, knows the true identity of his supernatural foe? Because he’s really the Archangel Triton, sent down from Heaven on a mission to put Old Scratch in his place, and to avenge the deaths of the family who once lived in the farmhouse! Phil, the girls, and the other band members, meanwhile, were entirely illusory, phantoms patterned after characters from cheap horror movies. (“I knew I recognized that geeky bass player from somewhere,” the Devil grumbles in exasperation.) Triton then stands up from his seat, and is instantly illuminated by blinding white light, his flowing blonde mane now whipping around his head with gusts of mystical wind. And as Satan reveals his true form— a full-scale, seven-foot rubber monster the shittiness of which is entirely beyond my ability to describe— Triton takes on his as well. When the camera cuts back to him, Triton’s hair has been permed up to ludicrous height and girth, stylish black eyeliner has magically appeared on his eyelids, and his frumpy jeans and t-shirt have been replaced by a short black cape and a studded leather codpiece! Triton strikes a quick bodybuilder pose, and the battle is joined. Whatever else it may be, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is without a doubt the only movie ever made in which the ultimate battle between cosmic good and cosmic evil plays out as a fistfight between a half-naked heavy metal archangel and an almost completely immobile rubber Satan.

     And in light of that fact, I think it is also beyond question that Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare was made, at least at some level, as a deliberate refutation of the conventional association between heavy metal and evil. Jon-Mikl Thor isn’t just a totally untalented Canadian B-movie actor, after all. Before he made himself known to the moviegoers of the world (or at least, to those of us with no taste whatsoever) in films like the infamous Zombie Nightmare and the utterly forgotten Police Academy rip-off Recruits, Thor had gained a different sort of notoriety fronting a series of metal bands. (And before that, he had been a both a male stripper and a professional bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA titles late in his teens.) The best known of his musical projects was the outrageously theatrical concept-band Thor; what I’ve read makes them sound like what might have happened if Gwar had latched onto Robert E. Howard novels instead of trashy gore movies as their primary inspiration, and had played dreadful cock-rock instead of dreadful speedmetal. What’s more, Thor didn’t just star in Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, he wrote and produced it as well, while the band the movie shows him fronting apparently really is his group from the time, the Tritonz. Thus when John Triton belts out the lyrics to “We Live to Rock” in the first rehearsal scene, it’s safe to say that Jon-Mikl Thor really means it. That fact and all that goes with it impart a certain insane earnestness to Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, which in turn causes the movie to transcend its status as a third-string metal-monger’s cheesy little vanity project; awful as it is, Jon-Mikl Thor plainly cared a great deal about this flick, and saw in it something like his opportunity to tell the other side of the story. Perhaps you find that funny, or perhaps you find it merely sad. I myself find it perversely inspiring.

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VHS MOVIE REVIEW : DEAD END DRIVE-IN
WRITTEN BY DAVID CARROLL AT TABULA-RASA.INFO

"Shit! We're on fire!"

I saw an interview with one of the film-makers of Oscar and Lucinda once -- possibly Gillian Armstrong herself, though I can't quite remember. She said that they would not have considered making the movie if they could not film a glass church floating down a river. If you've read Peter Carey's original novel, you'll understand (and if you haven't you should, although that's a completely different review).

I am wondering if similar thoughts went through Brian Trenchard-Smith's mind. Would a screen adaptation of Carey's short story 'Crabs' work without the hero of the piece turning into a tow truck and driving away? I suspect the answer to that one is that it better bloody work, because some things really are unfilmable. Whether that applies to the story as a whole could be debated, but they had a go, and Dead End Drive-In is it.

This is good old post-apocalyptic Australia. Not the desert nomad stuff of Mad Max II, but the decaying urbanity of Mad Max I, where the cities are dangerous and freedom is an open road. The hero is Jeffery Rossini, aka Crabs for reasons best not gone into, who borrows his brother's car to take his date to the drive-in. Crabs is trying to get himself into shape, and has ambitions to drive a tow truck, scavenging parts from the carnage on the roads before the 'karboys' move in to grab the lot. But for now he's got his girl, a car with fold-down seats, and he's as happy as can be. Until, inevitably, something goes wrong and they're stuck in the drive-in, seemingly for good. (Joe R. Lansdale wrote a couple of novels with a similar premise, by the way, which are recommended, although turn out quite differently.)

It all looks pretty good. At the beginning we get shots of oil-refineries, red sunsets, trash and old wrecks on the streets, and lots of spiky haircuts. The drive-in itself is a mix of fifties décor trashed by eighties punks. While the boppy-soundtrack and retro-fashions start off looking stupid and out of place, in the end it is all part of the tableaux -- after all, it is set in a drive-in. Naturalism is not the point. So the designers did well, and for the most part the director took advantage of it. Where it all falls down is the script, and the stilted delivery of many of the lines within it.

It's easy to blame this on the short story, or rather the way it has been adapted. The writer, Peter Smalley, seemed so keen to follow his source that you can practically tick off the paragraphs. People say things that they wouldn't, just to get across the written background. Worse, some combination of the editing and the delivery makes most of the lines seemed strained even if they're reasonable. Of the principal actors, only Peter Whitford as the drive-in proprietor acquits himself well (he's been in a lot of things, including Oscar and Lucinda I note in passing). The prolific Trenchard-Smith looks a lot more relaxed showing us burning cars than a family dinner. Strangely enough, the punks also come out well. Australian actors seem to be able to portray such things a lot better than Americans usually manage, mainly because they don't seem to care if they look grubby and insane in a not-zany-at-all fashion. Wilbur Wilde takes honours here. And as the punks start taking up more of the screen-time, the point of the movie starts coming across, and quite a subversive one it is too.

On the surface it's about racism -- the white inhabitants start railing against the Asian hordes that are being shipped into the drive-in (one of the harbingers of apocalypse in the beginning title cards is the 'great white massacre'). Then there's the whole corrupt cops bit. But these familiar and highly topical bugbears are still only symptoms of the deeper problem. All this youthful rebellion epitomised by the drugs, wanton destruction and visual cues back to teenage films of past decades goes nowhere, because it is the establishment. They wear the clothes of rebellion, but almost explicitly let the government tell them how to rebel.

This is in the story, in a lower key (I'm very interested in Crabs' girlfriend, Carmen, who becomes part of this interior society. Compare her name to the karboys...) In the original, the gate of the drive-in is unlocked and unguarded, because all that is needed is the will to leave. In the movie we get explosions, chase sequences, slo-mo car flips and machine-gun fire (and some gratuitous nudity as well -- although it must be said that every bared breast is prefigured in the source text!). As the hero fights his way out, we see fight scenes on the cinema screen behind him. So although the film does not follow its hero into transformation, by that point it does not need to, because it has carved out its own rationale from its own medium. I'm a little disappointed they didn't try for the final sting at the end, but it's also a hard one to film (and I've given away too much already, so that's all I'll say about that).

Balanced by all this interesting stuff is the fact it's still not particularly well-made, with stilted performances, weird pacing and a self-conscious manner that gives the audience too much distance from the action. But its heart is in the right place, and it does flow better as it goes on. It may not have become iconic like the Mad Max series did before it, but it still worth hunting down a copy and giving it a look.

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