Friday, October 4, 2013

B-Movie Review: “The Curse” (1987)

A criminally underappreciated genre flick starring Sheriff Lobo as a meteor-juice possessed psychopath trying to kill Wesley Crusher for an hour and a half. And the only man that can save him? BO DUKE. (And if that’s not enough for you?  Lucio Fulci had something to do with it, too.)

As an adolescent, I couldn’t wait for the weekends to kick off. Why? Because after five full days of lackluster public education and both direct and indirect harassment from various ne’er-do-wells of varying socioeconomic standings, I had two and a half days to kick back and just REVEL in the bliss of B-movie-dom.

Picture it: metro Atlanta, 1999. There were these things back then called “VCRs,” which were sort of like DVD players, except instead of playing compact discs, they played what were more or less giant cassettes, which contained individual films of dubious audio and video quality. Every Friday, I made my weekly pilgrimage to the local mom and pop video store, plopped down my two dollars and some odd cents and scooped up TWO VHS horror flicks -- generally, one for Friday evening, and the other for first thing on Saturday morning. Throw in a six pack of Winn-Dixie branded Dr. Pepper and maybe a bag of Reese’s or two, and you had the pre-teen equivalent of Valhalla on your hands for less than  five pre-Recession dollars. It was economical, it was awesome, and to this day, it’s pretty much the only thing I remember about my seventh and eighth grade years.

During my year-long VHS horror odyssey, I saw some of the finest B-movies of all time -- “The Last House on the Left,” “Dead Alive,” “Night of the Creeps” among them -- and a whole shit-ton of absolutely awful movies that not even hardcore genre nerds have ever heard of before (and if you’ve ever seen stuff like “Pigs,” “The Dead Pit,” or “Bog” before…my sincerest apologies.)

Out of all the flicks I rented way back when, I think one film in particular stands out as my “greatest” discovery as a filmgoer. Amid all of the cult classics, I uncovered this one movie from 1987 called “The Curse,” which judging from its incredibly nondescript and fairly generic box-art, most people would assume to be just another no-budget supernatural shlocker.

From what I recollect, however, the movie made a pretty damn huge impression on me. Despite being filmed for about three dollars and forty three cents, there was this weird, atypically rural atmosphere surrounding the movie, which totally connected with me being a kid living out in hillbilly country and everything. With a plot line that was completely antithetical to genre proscriptions of the heyday (you know, back when everything was just a variation on the “dead teenager” formula) and a cast filled with REAL actors, the flick was certainly miles above most straight-to-VHS offerings. And that’s not even counting the gruesome special effects and pacing, which from what I remember, were definitely effective and then some.

Of course, I saw said film almost fifteen years ago, so could it be that the haze of nostalgia has completely blinded me to the film’s true qualities? Well, let’s fire up the old Sanyo, and see if this thing don’t still kick all kinds of ass, why don’t we?

Sage life advice: if a giant, glowy orb ever falls out of the sky and lands on your property, it's probably not a good idea to drink the stuff oozing out of it. 

Like all great works of art, “The Curse” begins with a police standoff involving a gooey herpes-faced guy in the suburbs, who keeps screaming “IT’S IN THE WATER!” over and over again while the po-po drags him off to jail. After the introductory credits roll, we’re taken back six months earlier, to Tellico Plains, Tennessee -- a rather rustic community, home to rolling green hills and ominous grey skies. And as cinematic classics such as “Deliverance” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” have already proven to us, absolutely NOTHING bad in the slightest ever happens out in such bucolic pastures.

We’re introduced to the main character, played by Wil Wheaton -- he of “Star Trek” and ubiquitous geekery fame, of course. He’s living out on a farm, with a fairly obese yokel step-brother (who really resembles Donkey Lips from “Salute Your Shorts”), whom also enjoys pushing him into manure piles. The two start scuffling, and here comes Wil’s step-daddy, a bible-quoting, gravel-throated farmer type played by SHERIFF FREAKING LOBO himself. Wil takes the lord’s name in vain, so his step-pa slaps him for his blasphemy. For all of you college kids out there, you could really make a fun drinking game by taking shots every time Claude Akins backhands Wesley Crusher. Trust me; by the time the movie is over, you WILL be sloshed.

In the next sequence, Wil’s mama is hanging out by a fruit stand, when this really sleazy dude in carnival barker attire shows up and starts hitting on her. Apparently, he’s trying to buy their farm or some shit, so he can turn around and sell it off to make room for an aqueduct. So, yeah, there’s definitely NOT any kind of commentary going on here about corporate subsidization and the plight of the rural farmer during Reagan’s America. Not. At. All.

The kids watch themselves some Tennessee Vols football, and Wil’s mama makes some moves on Claude Akins in bed -- he rejects her, stating that the bible tells them that men are the ones that are supposed to make the first move. Needing her feed sack filled (if you get my drift, wink-wink), she walks on over to a little laborer’s shack and does the horizontal mambo with him instead of her husband. While she’s getting boinked by a dude with a really hairy back, a comet falls out of the sky, which causes Wil to remark “ho-lee shit!” Thank goodness his step-dad wasn’t around, or else that surely would’ve resulted in another five knuckle salute!

So, the family investigates the meteor, including the next-door neighbors -- a doctor and his really, really cosmopolitan-looking wife. The next day, the dude from the fruit stand -- a real-estate con-artist named Davidson -- shows up at the doctor’s office, where they talk about covering up the asteroid so the EPA doesn’t investigate it. As it turns out, the real-estate agent and the doctor have some sort of scheme going on, where they’re attempting to buy up some farmland so they can turn around and re-selling it to make way for a dam subsidy. So, uh, like I was saying…no political subtext going on here, at all.

I have a similar expression every time I hear the name "JaMarcus Russell." 

Meanwhile, Wil pokes the glowing asteroid, and some meteor juice seeps out of it. The doctor shows up and tells the family that he talked to some scientific folks (he didn’t, though), that told him the meteor is just a frozen chunk of airplane shit (in short, the same plot device from “Joe Dirt.”) And then, we get a really creepy montage of the family watering their crops and feeding their livestock…

In the next scene, a Tennessee Valley Authority agent (played by John "BO DUKE" Schneider, of all people) shows up in town, and everybody is a little suspicious of him. While he searches for a motel, the mama of the farm family brings in some suspiciously rotten lettuce…and it appears as if she’s developed some sort of facial tumor, overnight. Then, she squeezes a rotten tomato, which EXPLODES IN A SHOWER OF BLOOD! Well, maybe it’s more like spaghetti sauce than plasma, but the aesthetic effect is all the same, I suppose.

So, Davidson and the TVA agent (named Willis) have a chit-chat about plans to build a reservoir, and Davidson hauls ass around the back roads, while playing covers of Jerry Lee Lewis songs. The doctor (named Forbes) sits in bed with his wife, and they talk about their real estate scheme some more. Wil decides to sneak out at night, collecting his neighbors’ water in a canteen. Meanwhile, the well water at the farm is looking suspiciously cloudy, and that plate of chicken Claude tries to make his kids eat looks…well, really, REALLY gross and unnatural.

The step-brother gets attacked by a horse in the next sequence, and in an act of vengeance for the horse manure scene earlier, Wil drops a barbed wire fence right on his step-brother’s exposed buttock. Mom -- whose face looks WAY grosser than it did before -- plays “connect the dots” on her step-kid’s behind with iodine, and at that point, EVERYBODY in the family knows things are considerably out of whack. Funny how nobody even NOTICED her face turning into a rotten potato, though.

So, yeah, it's probably not all that wise to ask Mom for an allowance raise right about now...

Wil’s sister -- played by his actual real-life sister -- gets attacked by some mutant chickens, and Claude finds out that his entire apple orchard is riddled with diseased maggots. The family and the doctor next door briefly talk about the animal attacks, while mom’s facial warts worsen. Now she’s stitching her own fingers together, so Wil runs out and gets the doctor once more, but when he arrives, Claude says nothing’s the matter and then he slaps Wil again for brining outsiders into their affairs. The doctor says “you know, maybe there IS something weird going on here,” and retrieves a water sample for later assessment.

The TVA agent surveys the farm, and decides to just amble on in to Claude’s house for a sip of water. Of course, he’s attacked by mom when he does, and Claude tells him to leave and never come back to his residence. And hey, it looks like the older step-brother has the same warts that mom has now!

Claude looks around his farm some more, and the cows appear diseased. He pokes a calf, and it explodes in a shower of maggots. Mom is now tied to the bed, and Claude reads some passages from Revelations to her. He blames her infidelity for the comet and pox on his land. Eventually, she escapes, and she starts puking up peach cobbler spit everywhere, and she attacks her husband with a fire poker, and while he wrestles with her, his mutant offspring keeps rooting for him to kill her. Taking the tried-and-true “Evil Dead” route, they finally say “enough of this shit” and throw mom into the fruit cellar. Meanwhile, the doctor gets the results of the water test, and as it turns out, there’s some sort of alien compound in the drink that has the ability to alter the molecular structure of living things. The good doctor steals the sample, and runs out of the building, because…well, why wouldn’t he instead of contacting the CDC and shit?

Davidson and the doctor’s wife decide to head over to the farm for a bit, and wouldn’t you know it, the family dogs are all crazy and stuff now so they eat her. Davidson flees into the basement, thinking he’ll be safe from mutant beings down there. Of course, the mutated mom is there, too, so…well, I’m sure you know how these kinda’ scenarios end in horror flicks by now.

Claude decides to move mom out of the cellar and back into the bedroom, for reasons that are never really explained. And now, HE seems to have the zombie pustules on his face, and he attacks Wil out of the blue. Meanwhile, the mutated older-brother attacks Wil’s sister, while the scariest banjo music you’ve ever heard plays in the background. Eventually, Wil is able to obtain a baseball bat, and temporarily wards off his mutant step-family. The doctor, having had a change of heart it seems, shows up to rescue the kids, but he gets done in by Claude and a crowbar as soon as he tries to make the save. Wil and his sister try to escape, but oh shit, the house is boarded up FROM THE INSIDE!

There are some dermatological crises, I am afraid, that even Noxzema can't clear up... 

The house starts to crumble, and here comes the TVA agent to save the kids! The older brother is done in by some falling debris, and Wil tries to find his mom -- who has turned into a virtually liquefied salad monster. Knowing she’s beyond salvation, he makes a mad scramble to escape the farm, only to be confronted by his step-daddy, who bitch slaps him one more time for good measure. Eventually, Claude is crushed by a falling pillar, as he and his sister hop in the back of the TVA agent’s ride and watch their farm burn to the ground. Cue a disturbing glare from Wil, and it’s a fade to black.

A lot of times, when we reflect back on B-movies we used to love, you can’t help but feel a little blinded by nostalgia; that is, that you enjoy the movie more for its temporal connections to your own life than for the movie itself. With “The Curse,” I suppose that may play some into why I still adore it so much, but for the most part, I’d say this is a downright fantastic no-budgeter that really, really deserves more acknowledgement than it gets.

The film is somewhat based on the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Colour out of Space” -- which in turn, spawned  the 1965  film “Die, Monster, Die!” -- but it’s a VERY loose adaptation, I assure you. And in terms of its cast and crew, we have one hell of a line-up here, both in front of AND behind the camera.

The Bo Duke/Wesley Crusher/Sheriff Lobo trifecta has already been touched upon, but the supporting cast, surprisingly, has been shockingly prolific as well. The guy that played Davidson, Steve Carlisle, has been on approximately 5 billion different TV shows (as well as the Burt Reynolds career ender, “Cop and a Half”), while the gut that played Dr. Forbes, Cooper Huckabee, has had a 30 year plus acting career, having even popped up in last year’s “Django Unchained.” And the guy that played the abusive older step-brother? His name is Malcolm Donare, and he played Dr. Mendel Craven in both the 1998 “Godzilla” remake AND its Saturday morning cartoon spin-off.

Behind the scenes, we’ve got ourselves a virtual who’s-who of exploitation flick heavies, even though the director of the flick, David Keith, is really more well-known as an actor (he’s probably best known for playing Sid Worley in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”) For one thing, LUCIO MOTHER LOVIN’ FULCI was a second unit director for the flick, and in the film’s gore scenes, you can really see his influence. Strangely, the film’s interior scenes were all filmed in Italy, while the exterior shots were filmed in location in Tennessee -- so if shit is going on indoors, it’s a pretty safe bet that, at that moment, you’re gotten FULCI’D hard as a viewer. Adding to the film’s B-movie street cred: it was written by David Chaskin (who also penned the super-homoerotic second “Elm Street” script”) and it was produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis, who in addition to having the most hilariously made-up sounding pizza-buying name in history, also brought us such gems as “Beyond the Door” and “Piranha 2: The Spawning.”

It was followed up by three sequels, but that’s kinda’ misleading, since the subsequent films had absolutely nothing at all to do with the plot of this one (although “Curse II: The Bite” is pretty damned entertaining -- what, with it being a movie about a newly-wed couple turning into snake monsters that eat German immigrants because Jamie Farr gave them the wrong medicine and whatnot.)

Growing up in more or less the same region where the film was shot, I suppose it’s not too surprising that the film resonated with me so much -- both as an adolescent, and even right now. Yes, on the surface, “The Curse” is a movie about asteroid zombies trying to eat children, but once you put on your sociopolitical glasses, it becomes glaringly apparent that this is a movie with some HEAVY subtext going on. Most obviously, it’s a film about the plight of the rural American family, and how their culture of folksy religion and regional insulation makes them easy prey for profits-hungry, government subsidy-eying corporate farms and real estate barons. Not coincidentally, the hero of the film is a federal official, and NOT one of the local or state “protectorates” of the downtrodden. Technically, the primary villain of the flick is an inanimate space rock, but if you checked underneath it, you may very well see the words “Reaganomics” stamped next to its barcode. And lastly, I think the film, in some capacity, is a metaphor for having alcoholic parents -- you know, not being able to trust your own kind to protect you, because they’re too busy reading the New Testament and getting tanked on moonshine to understand that your confused about growing older. It may not be explicitly framed that way in the movie, but you certainly feel that sense of hopelessness, that common sense just can’t prevail in your hinterlands; and if you ask me, that’s a notion that’s infinitely more frightening than all of cinemadom’s zombies, werewolves and vampires super-glued together.

Simply put, “The Curse” is a GREAT B-Movie, and one of the best ‘80s horror-exploitation movies that most folks have never heard of. If you’re looking for a terrific, no-budget, atmospheric ‘80s horror offering this Halloween season -- and you don’t want to watch “Halloween 4” for the eighth millionth time -- I really can’t recommend “The Curse” strongly enough. Trust me: if you haven’t caught this one before, you are REALLY missing out on something special.

Three and three quarter stars out of four. Jimbo says check it out.


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