CIMARRON (1931, Written by Howard Estabrook, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; directed by Wesley Ruggles; with Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, George E. Stone, Roscoe Ates, Edna May Oliver, Eugene Jackson)
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
CIMARRON (1931, Written by Howard Estabrook, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; directed by Wesley Ruggles; with Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, George E. Stone, Roscoe Ates, Edna May Oliver, Eugene Jackson)
Unexpectedly, I impulsively watched CIMARRON (1931) because it happened to be on TCM.
I already happened to know that it won the Oscar for Best Picture. After watching it, I learned that it had the distinction to be the first and only Western to do so until 60 years later when DANCES WITH WOLVES won.
I think what attracted my initial interest was that Irene Dunne was in it. I thought she was great in a THE AWFUL TRUTH with Cary Grant. But Richard Dix, who I've heard of but knew nothing about, has star billing over Dunne (his name's definitely larger in the opening credits). Anyway, out of curiosity I thought I'd check it out for a few minutes.
What a fascinating movie this is on its own and also for its time; which is to say, there are some really dated moments in it (like blatant racial caricatures, also styles of acting) but also some really impressive moments and set pieces.
For instance, the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush sequence at the very beginning is really something to watch. It's a great spectacle, vast in scope with hundred of horses, riders, covered wagons (literally as far as the eye can see) and when the cavalry fires the shots to start the land grab, the 3 minutes of racing vehicles and humanity is breathtaking. Only 3 minutes but there's a lot on-screen and surprisingly, tightly edited, I thought. I was impressed by not only the sheer spectacle but also a number of individual moments that are also depicted in the event. You see the variety of vehicles, from covered wagons, individual horses, smaller wagons, uncovered wagons or large carts packed with the family (including children), even ridiculous sights like a guy riding one of those crazy antique bicycles where the front wheel is, like, as tall as hell with a little wheel in back. But they all are racing across the land and it looks scary as hell. Horses running wild with harnesses attached but nothing else. People on foot taking up the rear. You get a sense of how the filmmakers are trying to depict the wild energy and history of that moment as people were racing to grab a piece of property for themselves (first come, first served!) of the two million acres available.
What's really amazing is that the scene depicted is modern history, only 40 years prior to when the film was made.
I think the film does a great job of depicting this unbelievable moment. From then on, we see the growth of Oklahoma, via the city of Osage, first as a territory taken from the Indians and literally overnight populated and developed by ambitious landowners, merchants and citizens, until it reaches statehood. This historic growth (and its growing pains) is seen through the eyes of Richard Dix and Irene Dunne's characters, Yancey and Sabra Kravat, seeing how this territory is tamed with its various social dynamics and law enforcement over the next forty years.
The first most egregious and painfully obvious (and obviously painful) thing to witness in the film as a sign of when it was made is the depiction of the character of an African American servant boy named Isaiah (played by Eugene Jackson). His inclusion seems like obvious comedy relief and his style of speaking just makes you wince, with his calling, "Massa, Massa!" when he talks to Yancey or referring to the territory as "Okleehomey." To lesser degree, there are other characters that are also caricatures but to a lesser degree, and these caricatures are playing up ethnic differences or even moreso, that they country folk or hicks. But, really, it's Isaiah's character that's the worst. The other characters may be a bit stereotyped, but part of that I really believe is an effort to show the wild make-up of the people settling this land and the insane atmosphere and local color (for lack of a better word, sorry) of this historic moment when a whole new expanse of the United States was re-populated instantaneously. It's only with Isaiah's character that I felt the filmmakers were laughing AT his character and inviting us to do so as well. So, it came as a surprise when later in the film a gang of outlaws ride into town (led by "the Kid"), guns blazing, shooting up property and killing people as well. As the townspeople panic, the Kravats' young son, Cimarron, is still outside playing and Sabra is beside herself. Isaiah immediately runs out of the house to look for him and as he does so, sabra calls for him to come back but he doesn't hear or listen. As he runs through town, Isaiah takes a bullet as the gang is still shooting away. The moment when he's shot, and a subsequent scene where Isaiah calls out to Yancey's character after the shootout's over but the injured boy is too weak to make himself heard and thus we watch him die, are both rather tenderly and affectingly presented.
There's also an early scene where a Jewish merchant, Sol Levy (George E. Stone), who pulls a small notions cart through the dusty streets is the victim of an early villain, Lon Yountis (played by Stanley Fields) and his gang in town. The gang is tormenting Levy, who pathetically and affectingly pleads for them to stop, but they continue to harass him in broad daylight. They drag him across the street and at one point, Levy is thrown against this post that has a crossbar and he leans against it helplessly as the gang descends upon him. Levy's arms are upraised in submission and mercy in context, but its also an obvious visual reference to Christ on the cross, which I think is rather astonishing.
Later, in the first religious service held in the local gambling parlor, Grat Gotch’s Hall of Chance (the largest place in town to hold a congregation), Levy comes in and sits down meekly, wondering if it's alright. Yancey happens to be leading the sermon and he tells Levy it’s alright. During his sermon, Yancey spontaneously names the "church": “Fellow citizens, I’ve been called to conduct this opening meeting of the Osage First Methodist Episcopalian Lutheran Presbyterian Congregational Baptist Catholic…” and here he looks at Levy, “…Hebrew Church.”
So, there's a lot of fascinating details in this film. You have to emotionally and intellectually compartmentalize the film’s virtues and failings as you watch; it's a cultural history lesson both in filmmaking and pop-cultural history telling.
Finally, I think this is also an interesting example of how the plot and characters help a film a lot in terms of maintaining interest. A couple weeks ago the Bible epic/melodrama SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959) with Yul Brynner and Gina Lollabrigida (!) as the title characters was also on TCM and I watched large parts of that, equally fascinated. The story was also interesting. Although, the weird casting was part of that fascination. For instance, George Sanders as a warmongering biblical Israeli prince was kind of unexpected. But the story kind kept me more or less glued to the screen.
Anyway: CIMARRON from 1931.
I'm really glad I saw this damn old movie.
(Originally posted in a shorter version on my Facebook page)
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
White Lions, House Wolves, and Killer Shrews -- Oh, YEAH!: The ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS World Premiere
Okay. Here’s my account of the world premiere of the White Lion Studios production of ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS which happened… uh… oh, crap. Which happened TWO MONTHS AGO, Friday night, September 30, at the historic North Park Theatre on Hertel Ave. in Buffalo.
What a ridiculous, insane and fun movie!
But, wait, wait... hang on… I’m getting ahead of myself…
[NOTE: Okay, it took me forever to write this (ask Marcus and Ken!) and my finally completing this post is good news/bad news.
The good news is two-fold: First, I finished the damn thing (YES!). Second, I more-or-less was able to "document" the event, if not in a true journalistic fashion, then at least in a manner to satisfy my personal idiosyncratic goals. I think the local WNY filmmaking community is a fascinating over-all network of various smaller overlapping groups and worthy of some sort of on-going "reporting" or written coverage. In this particular case, when I say "filmmaking" I mean those who engage in all parts of the cinematic process: producers, writers, directors, actors, crew, etc. Unfortunately, at present I don't seem to have the discipline or efficient writing ability to do such reporting myself; although I'm always hopeful that may change, even if improvement means I just post more frequently on this blog. At the very least, for my own purposes, I'm aiming to write more about those films and filmmakers I have some sort of knowledge about simply because my memory is beyond flawed and, after a short period of time, I forget a lot of stuff. So, for myself, I'm excited that I actually followed through on writing about this one filmmaking event. Now I have something I can refer back to in the future! Hopefully, I can motivate my butt to do some more posts, but we'll see. The bad news: I take FOREVER to write and additionally, I take FOREVER to get to any sort of point in whatever I’m writing.
For instance, I have a bad habit of "burying the lead," among many other bad writing habits. Although, some readers may feel I NEVER get to the point in my writing. I'm a long-winded tortoise of a writer. The italicized dates in the above top left corner indicate the day when I started writing this and when I finally finished it. I know: OY.
But there's a bonus: this post is also LONG AS HELL. Sorry! I mean, YAY! Anyway, here it is in all its meandering, name-dropping glory. And thanks for checking it out!]
First things first: If you see me running down a street in Buffalo, chances are very good that I'm trying to make it to a show in time. I’ve done this more often than not ever since I started going to plays in Buffalo, like, back in the 80s. I usually decide at the last minute that I'm actually going to attend a performance, abruptly haul ass from home, barely have time to find a parking spot and then desperately race to the theater. Friday night of the SHREWS premiere was no different; although in that case, I knew well ahead of time I was going, so maybe there was some personal time management issues going on there as well… so, uh... whatever! I had to park a full block away from Hertel Ave. and then ran over halfway down Norwalk before I “decided” to shift down to a walk and wheeze my heart-rate down some before strolling pseudo-nonchalantly (in my mind) into the theater.
Ooh! It was great to see "World Premiere Attack of the Killer Shrews" up on the marquee!
Before I even got my ticket, I saw writer/director Greg Lamberson (the upcoming JOHNNY GRUESOME), who playfully greeted me by sticking his head in the side window of the box office booth. Soon after I saw him in the theater standing next to editor/digital FX artist Chris Cosgrave, and writer/director/actor John Renna (both for DICK JOHNSON & TOMMYGUN VS. THE CANNIBAL COP).
I almost blew off saying hello to actor and screenwriter Paul “Doughy White Boy” McGinnis (of KILLER RACK fame and persistent split pants notoriety), but he shamed me into saying hello. Although, in my defense, I walked past him without realizing it was him.
Okay, I DID actually completely ignore John Renna. I was talking to Greg and Chris in the theater aisle and I saw that John was seated several seats in with some other people between me and him, but before I could acknowledge him, I got turned around and shamed by Paul, and then, easily distracted me, I was focused on sitting closer to the screen in an aisle seat so I went off without even acknowledging John's existence (which is saying something because he's a big dude). As I sat down it dawned on me that I didn't actually say hello to him, but I didn't feel like walking back up the aisle and rectifying that because I figured I’d talk to him after the movie.
After I parked my butt, I saw actor Bill Kennedy (who was in SHREWS) as he wandered around the audience looking all spiffy in his tux and talking to various people. Some people who sat behind me called Bill over and when he arrived an impromptu photo op in the aisle began right next to me featuring Bill and the aforementioned people. Friends and/or family, I conjectured. I further conjectured the convivial crowd in general was appropriately crammed with such encouraging kith and kin of other SHREW cast and crew.
From my seat I saw that several rows ahead of me were the Muehlbauers: Tom, Shelly and their daughter Hope. My association to them is pretty much as an acquaintance aka “Facebook friend” though I have taken advantage of the social media connection a couple times, having messaged Tom for some recommendations on Italian horror (I noticed via some of his FB statuses that he seemed fairly well-versed in that genre). We have also chatted about Astron-6’s THE EDITOR and Italian giallos. Ah, you know, the usual guy locker room talk, baby… Anyway, I stared at the backs of their heads for a while, especially at the back of Hope’s head, her hair fashionably dipped in blue. After being clandestinely creepy for several minutes (at least to anyone watching me staring intensely at the backs of the heads of Clan Muehlbauer) – actually I was being a little shy - I screwed up my nerve to wander down and say howdy. I greeted Tom and Shelly and they waved and greeted me back, but mostly I wanted to talk to Hope. Acting in the capacity as current Buffalo Movie-Video Makers (BM-VM) Club President, I chatted with the young filmmaker and floated the idea of Hope stopping by at one of our monthly BM-VM meetings this season. We could discuss her short film, ZOMBIE KIDS, as well as her upcoming feature, I DARE YOU TO OPEN YOUR EYES. However, acting purely in the capacity as a Hope Muehlbauer fan, I told her I had recently re-watched her filmmaking debut (the 23-minute zombie film) and I thought the film still held up from when I first saw it at Buffalo Dreams in 2014. Hope was 13 years old when she completed ZOMBIE KIDS and while talking to her I learned she’s now in 11th grade. She thought that she could work out attending a BM-VM meeting with her school schedule. I went back to my seat a little giddy having just talked to the local film celebrity.
Back at my seat I'm soon surprised by three other WNY film people: Rochester area filmmakers Adrian Esposito (BURY MY HEART WITH TONAWANDA) and Curt Markham (SABREFROG) and Lewiston actor John Karyus (POULTRYGEIST). The three happened to see me and wandered over. It turned out Adrian, Curt and John had all been in the Niagara Falls area just a day or two before and worked as extras on THE PLAGUE, the zombie film writer/director Emir Skalonja (THE BUTCHER) was currently shooting. Adrian informed me that he himself was working on a zombie film script and the concept he briefly described sounded pretty cool.
Curt and I talked about the upcoming screening of STRANGE BREW at the North Park, which was happening the next morning Saturday (10/1) at 11:30 am. By the way, whenever I see something about STRANGE BREW I usually think about Curt.
The 1983 comedy made enough of an impression on a younger Curt that it influenced some characters in the animated film that he made as a teenager, THE SEARCH FOR SILVERSPEAR, and that's always stuck with me. [NOTE: The next day I learned via Facebook that Curt had attended STRANGE BREW attired in all his "Canadian finery."]
Since we were discussing film extras (THE PLAGUE, remember?), John Karyus brought up a guy in L.A., an extra who specialized in playing a mechanic in films. An actual mechanic, the dude was discovered by a casting director, and ever since he has been type-cast as the go-to "mechanic" role in films and TV. He usually gets a line or three. He’s got that authenticity.
I then remembered that John had gone to THE BUTCHER premiere earlier in the year and he had talked favorably about it, so I told him about Skalonja’s (then) upcoming FLESH OF MY FLESH premiere. It was happening just a couple days later, Sunday (10/2), at the Screening Room [NOTE: I actually did see John there when I myself attended.]. [ADDITIONAL NOTE: If it seems like Emir Skalonja is cranking out a lot of horror films… YES. In fact, since it’s taken me so long to write this, Emir’s THE PLAGUE had its premiere as well(!) at the Screening Room’s NEW location in the Boulevard Mall on Nov. 27.]
Other SHREW cast members were making their way to their seats or talking to friends in the audience: Marcus Ganci-Rotella, Liz Houlihan, Cheryl Szymczak. Like Bill Kennedy, they were equally glamoured-up. There was also a blonde woman in a cream colored dress that was a head-turning vision but I didn't know who she was, but I guessed she was also in the film? [NOTE: I later learned it was children’s book author, Roselyn Kasmire (The Misadventures of Mage Magnus, The Adventures of Jasper: Road to Healthyville). I also realized I was an addled-brain lame-ass! I actually MET Roselyn earlier in September at Queen City’s Comic Con at the Buffalo Convention Center! She shared a table with Bill Kennedy. She was selling and signing her books, and Bill was selling DVDs of writer/director Emil J. Novak, Sr.’s FRANKENSTEIN’S PATCHWORK MONSTER in which Bill himself played the good(ish) doctor. Roselyn wasn’t actually in SHREWS, but she was a guest in the limo ride to the premiere.]
Holy (Additional) Local Celebrity Sighting! A spiffily attired gentleman asked if the seats next to me were taken, I said nope, and he and his date sat down next to me. With suppressed excitement I recognized him from the ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS trailer, but I didn’t let on because I actually didn’t know his name. I also saw him in a 2015 Buffalo 48 Hour Film Project that Ken Cosentino directed, PARRISH. Kind of thrilled by this development, literally rubbing elbows with more of the local film community! *star-struck!* [NOTE: Turned out it was Jonathan Rogers.]
Ken Cosentino then appeared on the stage and welcomed everybody, clearly pleased and excited by the size of the turnout. Oops, but we weren't ready yet. It was already past 9:30 pm but the concession stand was small and when there's a crowd back there it takes a while to work through the mob, plus there were still some latecomers in general.
Alright, Ken came back and it looked like they were ready to go!
Greg Lamberson was then called up and he briefly got on stage with Ken to make a neat announcement: not only was ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS going to show at the (then) upcoming Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival (November 4-13) but director and Troma Entertainment president himself, Lloyd Kaufman, would actually be present to introduce it! Pat Swinney Kaufman, formerly the Executive Director of New York State’s Governor’s Office of Film & Television Development, was going to be presented with a Buffalo Dreamer Local Service Award, and she was also Lloyd’s wife, so he was going to be in town with her. The announcement of Lloyd’s presence at the screening in November was news to Ken.
Bill Kennedy then came up on stage and after some words of appreciation to all the friends and family that showed up, Bill did a shout-out to his grandfather in the audience. Bill put on his grandpa's winter hat, and with mic in hand he proceeded to rap the whole damn "Humpty Dance" by Digital Underground. Bill even came off stage and walked around the audience while he still rapped authentically-ish.*
Ken then did a very heartfelt acknowledgement of his big brother, Matt Talley, who sadly died the year before on September 1. It was Matt who suggested to Ken to make a film like the original KILLER SHREWS and Matt was around when work began on ATTACK. The premiere of ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS was in Matt's honor. As Ken had put it on his Facebook page earlier in the week, "September is suicide awareness month and what is more fitting than closing out the month (literally, because the movie ends around midnight) with a feature film dedicated to my brother?" Understandably, it was obvious that Ken was filled with a number of emotions that night.
And then the house lights began to faaade…
Holy crap! We got some trailers before the film and what trailers! We were treated to a VERY cool trio of sci-fi movies that were going to be shown at the North Park Theatre in the following week: BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT (1982), DUNE (1984), and AKIRA (1988)!
Then, the trailer for another White Lion Studios film filled the screen: WOLF HOUSE (directed by Matt Lord). I first saw WOLF HOUSE c couple years back at the Riviera Theatre as part of the BNFF (Buffalo Niagara Film Festival). This trailer totally KICKED ASS. It was great seeing that Wild Eye Releasing logo!
The trailer’s editing seemed tighter than I remembered and it turned out that the folks at Wild Eye Releasing had a hand with it. Ken announced on Facebook earlier in the week that Wild Eye was going to be distributing and releasing WOLF HOUSE in spring of 2017 (but since the premiere, it now sounds more like early January, actually). Man, that trailer was pretty sweet!
Speaking of which, check it out here.
And then it was…
ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS (2016, Written and directed by Ken Cosentino; with Jonathan Rogers, Marcus Ganci-Rotella, Cheryl Szymczak, Elizabeth Houlihan, Bill Kennedy, Baird Hageman, Bill Brown, Mick O'Keefe)
The opening credit sequence with its miniature sets, miniature giant shrews and shout outs/homages to other horror films turns out to be extremely entertaining. It’s a really wonderful job by Liz Houlihan and Ken Cosentino. I LOVE the “clown car” shrew coffin! It’s additionally enjoyable to watch because it’s evident a lot of work (and cinematic affection) went into these opening credits.
Then, surprise! The credits sequence turns out to be a clever lead-in to Lloyd Kaufman's filmed introduction to SHREWS. I knew beforehand that Lloyd had an intro segment in the film, but his appearance is actually a pretty quality bit of screen-time with the Toxic Avenger’s creator. It didn't feel like a disposable cameo. Nice!
We were then thrown into the movie proper and the dude that was sitting right next to me, Jonathan Rogers, plays Professor Charles Perry and we're at his opulent (kind of) abode along with his guests: his literary agent, Lewis (played by Marcus Ganci-Rotella), and Lewis’ companion, Cassandra (Cheryl Szymczak). It is apparent that Perry is full of himself and loves sharing his brilliance with others. It is also obvious he is interested in Cassandra, which isn’t surprising because she looks pretty damn hot in that red dress.
Meanwhile, at some lab somewhere else that night, Dr. Murdock (Mick O'Keefe) and his thickly-bearded assistant, Svenson (Joseph Giambra), are conducting bizarre experiments and it involves… SHREWS! Unfortunately, their serum transforms their test subjects into violent, giant mutations that crave human flesh! I wish we could have seen a version of an actual-size (i.e. tiny) shrew prior to its monstrous transformation into something less tiny and more killer-y for reasons of comparison (you know, a Before and After deal), but, okay, in reality: who cares? We now have a deadly, obscenely large (for a shrew) and hairy beast on the loose! That’s all that matters! Considering the deadly developments, Doc Murdock flees the lab and runs for his life! Svenson, uh, not so much...
Further meanwhile, a mysterious woman drives along a dark road when her car inopportunely breaks down. Maybe she is to be shrew fodder? Or maybe not, because as luck would have it, the sheriff happens to come along soon afterwards and stops by. After some questions, it is learned that the attractive, glamorous driver (Liz Houlihan) is Hollywood actress, Fiona Rae (a nice, casual nod moniker-wise to actress Fay Wray, famous for her own monster movie cred), of whom Sheriff Blake (Bill Kennedy) is a star-struck fan. She's supposed to be a guest at the Professor's as well, so the Sheriff eagerly offers her a ride…
I'm not going to run-down the entire plot, just know that everybody shows up at Perry's palatial shack and a demented Dr. Murdock intrudes out of the darkness desperately crying "Killer shrews!" but no one believes him. Until fake-haired, ping-pong-ball-eyed death is viciously upon them and then everybody is running like hell for safety.
I enjoyed the throwaway red herring of a sub-plot of Lewis and Cassandra's sneaky doings behind the Professor's back especially since it leads to a delightfully absurd shrew entrance.
Jonathan Rogers is well-cast as the egotistical Professor Perry, but I especially love his sudden observations of something off-screen, each time delivered with perfect seriousness and genuine mystification. When what he sees is finally revealed, his befuddlement is understandable. So is ours.
Marcus Ganci-Rotella is arguably playing "another straight man" but he always does a great job. Okay, I'm saying this based on only two films, but I stand by that comment, by God! He was one of my favorite characters in WOLF HOUSE. He’s not so much a straight man as merely subjected to indignities in both films, but at least in this film it's funny**: his impressive girly screams of terror, his marathon chase through the woods, or being the unfortunate recipient of a Killer Shrew's “attentions.”
It was great seeing Cheryl Szymczak with more of a role. Usually I’ve seen her as an extra but this time she has an actual character. It was fun listening to the prickly banter and tossed off insults between Lewis and her as Cassandra, but she also shows some promise for physical comedy. The scene where she's trapped in the front seat of a truck as she’s fighting off a vicious Killer Shrew clawing at her through the windshield while, at the same time, she’s trying to negotiate a rifle in the tight space to get a shot at it is pretty damn funny. Sexy, too, with all her desperate squirming in that red dress.
Liz Houlihan's Fiona Rae is a nice dose of "classical acting” (for lack of a better term). I think the character’s presentation is informed both by Liz’s theater training and also what we may think a classic Hollywood studio actress would be like. I've always liked Liz since I saw her as the dramatic lead in writer/director Greg Robbin's THROUGH A MOTHER'S TEARS, so ever since then I've always looked forward to seeing whatever else she's in. It’s fun seeing her embody this old-school Hollywood studio actress and great seeing her do comedy, from her line delivery, and later, her extended goofy-ass mugging for the camera.
Bill Kennedy as Sheriff Blake is an enjoyably star-struck, sincerely doofus-y law enforcer. Bill plays him bigger than life and he’s awesome looking in costume. I especially love that friggin' hat of his and the big-ass gun he waves around and fires simultaneously with authority and ineptitude. He can be stupendously bug-eyed at times, and definitely the most prominent fourth-wall-breaking proclaimer of the line "Killer Shrews!" Okay, running a close second in terms of fourth-wall-breaking proclamations is Doc Murdoch, speaking of which...
Mick O'Keefe is pure Z-movie gold with his sweatily intense line deliveries and apocalyptic warnings of Shrewish doom, plus his mutation into Shrewishness himself (all wonderfully apparent in the movie's trailer, by the way). O'Keefe's casting in this film cashed in on the over-the-top promise seen in his brief appearances in other films like Joey Springer's STAND OFF (where he has a memorable and entertaining death scene as a zombie), his work in Rhonda Parker's films BITING OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW (a zombie short) and LONELY BANANAS (as part of a large comic ensemble) and more.
And the Killer Shrews themselves were memorable for their focused performances and anti-social appearances. Earlier on Facebook (in anticipation of the premiere and after watching the SHREWS trailer) I remarked that these creatures had previously appeared in WOLF HOUSE. I was incorrect. They were actually sort of inbred cousins of those creatures. They were created from the WOLF HOUSE creature molds apparently, but after that, all bets were off in terms of the methodology of their completion. Their sorry states of appearance and mis-construction are blatantly apparent in the film: obvious duct tape use, gloves serving as paws at the end of exposed metal rods in the legs, even a dog is used! Yes, a canine thespian is actually scantily clad in pseudo-ShrewWear; the appearance is not merely a blatant indication of the FX department's "ineptitude" but also an affectionate shout-out to the original KILLER SHREWS movie. Sometimes dogs in make-up were actually used to play shrews in the 1959 B-movie starring James Best (later of DUKES OF HAZZARD TV fame***). Whether or not the dogs had their own trailer for make-up, etc. back then is unclear. All of these memorably lame examples were part of the deliberately impoverished aesthetic. These deadly-ass Killer Shrews looked like they were built by the same FX school of creature wizardry that created the spider in director Luigi Batzella's NUDE FOR SATAN (1974). Their acting ability also matched their feral, Hairy-Muppet Chic. For a quick reference, there is a great shot in the film's trailer of a Shrew peeking around a wall menacingly.
As our panicky cast (so far) flees to the nearby town or elsewhere, the film continues sprinkling in bold examples of thrills and production value – for instance, a police car proceeds recklessly through the night then suddenly hits a somewhat arbitrary incline in the outdoors, causing it to become airborne and flip over.
Driving the car is Deputy Wayne (played by Baird Hageman), Sheriff Blake's cousin (a fact Blake feels compelled to continuously point out to everybody). Not knowing who actor Baird Hageman was, I initially thought Wayne was a disposable character. This turned out to be SO untrue. In a memorable sequence, Wayne is quickly resurrected into the plot, motivating the damaged police car forward, but unfortunately driving said vehicle into a tree, then, with the car finally deceased Wayne continues on undeterred, commandeering a boat, then a motorcycle. When the motorcycle appears comically out of nowhere, Deputy Wayne tears off into the wilderness, popping a wheelie and proceeding hell-bent ever onward and I'm, like, who IS this guy? SHREWS is arguably many things, but most definitely it is a very cool introduction to Baird Hageman, local stuntman. As it turns out, he is also the film’s maniacal set designer, building Chateau Perry and also digging a mine (!) for the, well, mine sequence later in the film.
Oh. Yeah... speaking of that mine sequence… Okay, I have to make a confession: I kind of, uh, zoned out part-way through the film. Look, the film started late(ish) in the evening and I don't sleep as regularly as I should and sometimes, well, I kinda zone out. I realized this when during the Q&A afterwards there was talk about the mine sequence and I'm like, "The what sequence? Oh, crap..!" So, my apologies to Ken, cast and crew. Again, my lack of active cognition wasn't a reflection on the film's quality or intensity, it was just me being a guy who sometimes needs more sleep. My biggest regret for being briefly unconscious was missing Bill Brown in that scene (judging from the SHREWS trailer, his scene is perhaps inspired by Quint’s “USS Indianapolis” monologue in JAWS?). I know! I suck! Sorry! But I DID see the glorious moment when Mr. Wilkens (played by Bill Brown) and Professor Perry are back to back and enthusiastically shooting away at Killer Shrews. It was fun seeing Ken (as director) channel his inner Brian De Palma and (as director of cinematography) whirling his camera deliriously around those two shrew-blasting mofos.
Crap! I’m kind of blabbing away the entire plot here, which wasn’t my intention. Let me just tick off a few more moments…
Like, Niagara Falls hip-hopper Charlie "Coach" Hilson and Gary Marino as barber and customer respectively in their little scene together in the, well, barber shop.
And Michael Hawerbier’s brief yet comically intense screen time as the manager of the diner. It was cool seeing Michael again on-screen after having met him during LONELY BANANAS and working with him on that film’s “pornimation” sequence.
Also, Liz Houlihan’s hilarious, daringly protracted reaction of terror to a shrew in the barber shop. Okay, my only criticism/observation: if perhaps shortly after she began her reaction to something off-screen, if there had been a cut to a brief shot of the fear-inducing shrew that she was looking at. You could have still cut back to Fiona Rae channeling Curly Howard for as long as you wanted afterwards. But, with the inclusion of a glimpse of a shrew I thought the audience might then have better appreciated the why of her ridiculous reaction in the first place and then enjoyed it more without some possible distraction as to wondering what the hell Fiona Rae was going on about. Still, this wonderfully prolonged silly-ass moment by Liz was brilliant.
I also have to mention Ken Cosentino’s cameo as Officer Dewey. Okay, as I watched Dewey take forever to back out of the room equipped with his permanently affixed goofy-ass smile, part of me thought it was rather indulgent but another part of me thought it was genuinely sweet. Because, really, I wasn't watching Officer Dewey being smitten with famous actress Fiona Rae; instead, I was watching Ken Cosentino being smitten with Liz Houlihan, and by the time he actually reverses his butt all the way and actually out of the damn room, I was laughing at and charmed by the moment.
The motley assortment of army men: Joe Cliff Thompson, Eric Witkowski, Paul Spitale, James Ventry, and JB Aaron.
Sam Qualiana playing, well, another doomed asshole! (See KILLER RACK)
Oh! And look at that Ballistic Nuclear Crayon go! Hahaha!
EVERYBODY in the ensemble cast makes a distinct contribution to the comic insanity.
The film wraps up ridiculously from the perspective of appropriate unbelievability, yet somehowmanaging to be satisfying and heroic. I’ve left out several other details I could touch on but I think (I hope) you have an idea of the exuberant and fun spirit ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS was created with. It was freaking entertaining as hell! Congrats to the ensemble cast and inventive, hard-working crew and especially Ken Cosentino for putting this film together. As blatantly low-budget as this film was, you could still appreciate the several moments of genuine creativity and attention applied in assembling this consistently entertaining feature. And to top it off, White Lion Studios whipped up a swell, glitzy-ass World Premiere for it, too! Cripes, you even had an opportunity for a photo op with a Killer Shrew (“Shrewbert!”) in the lobby!
After the film, Ken and the rest of the SHREW-making ensemble assemble (ha!) on stage. JB Aaron (who played Sgt. Stonewall in the film) grabbed a mic and energetically went into the audience for the Q&A. I didn’t know who JB actually was other than he was (apparently) a Country & Western singer from Niagara Falls that Ken reached out to. When I was home and making love to Google, I learned JB Aaron was indeed a singer, and also the North East Regional Champion of the 33rd Annual Country Showdown (2014) which gave him the opportunity to play at the Grand Ole Opry. JB’s casting was another example of Ken’s efforts to showcase and celebrate Niagara Falls talent.
I learned a little more about Baird Hageman during the Q&A (and maybe a couple other sources later). Baird’s a local stuntman who Ken met twice during two different out-of-town productions that were shot in the WNY area in 2012. The first was filmed in the city of Niagara Falls, director Lloyd Kaufman’s RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH (VOL. 1 and 2), and then again during the Buffalo shoot of out-of-town director Alexander Yellen’s BATTLEDOGS (which aired on the SyFy Channel in April 2013). Baird built the car ramp for use in BATTLEDOGS, but they never used it. But Ken knew about it and remembered it, deciding to exploit its existence in SHREWS for the police car flip. Baird also used a backhoe to dig out the mine set in one day on his own property. As he dug out a “mine” about 20 feet long and 10 feet high, Ken and cast filmed scenes in Professor Perry’s “abode.” About a third of SHREWS was filmed on Baird’s property. By the way, Baird also built the old sawmill where the Cretins hung out in RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH.
I may have a “reputation” with some in the Buffalo film community for always asking questions during Q&As at film screenings, but I thought Adrian Esposito totally killed it with his questions for Ken. One was about a possible missed opportunity to show a “flashback” from THE KILLER SHREWS, the original film that inspired ATTACK, especially since the 1959 film is in public domain. Specifically, Adrian thought Bill’s monologue in the mine about the shrews offered a perfect opening for this. Ken had actually considered utilizing some KILLER SHREW footage in ATTACK but then changed his mind since the original film was in B&W. Adrian also wondered that since Lloyd Kaufman was in the film, was Troma going to be distributing the film? No, but it looks like Troma WILL be distributing the zombie film WITHIN (2014) that Ken directed and co-wrote with Jon Ferrari. It'll be renamed DEAD INSIDE. [NOTE: This is exciting news for me because I missed the two local screenings of WITHIN, but did catch the crazy Q&A AFTER the Buffalo Dreams screening it had, and based on that Q&A, man, THAT movie is screaming for a “behind the scenes/making of” documentary!]
I can’t remember if Ken talked about this before or after the film screened, but SHREWS came about because another film project fell through. Back in 2014, White Lion Studios tried to raise $55,000 via Indiegogo to film CAMP OF THE DAMNED, with Emmy-award winner Bill Oberst, Jr. (ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES, DefTone Picture Studios’ A GRIM BECOMING) as the lead. Unfortunately, they only raised 2% of their goal, so all their damned CAMP plans (sorry!) and pre-production efforts were for nothing. However, Ken didn’t want the opportunity of having the local players he had already assembled together go to waste, so he took a script he already had started (SHREWS!) and finished it in one (two?) days. Then, over the next two weeks, they shot the film. The rest of the time since then was used to hammer ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS into shape (editing, creating the opening credits sequence, etc.). I thought it was kind of neat knowing this backstory. To me it illustrates both how difficult it is to get various elements together to make a film, and also how you need to have a certain drive and tenacity to complete a film (no matter how low-budget).
After the Q&A, the audience slowly started to break up, talk amongst themselves, and take more pictures with each other. Curt and I talked about the neat trio of sci-fi trailers before the film. He was particularly impressed by DUNE. Curt lives in Rochester and has been stopping by the North Park regularly to catch their “retro” showings. That reminds me, I’ve been so lame I have YET to go to the Dryden Theater in Rochester to catch any of the fabulous screenings they have going on there and I’ve been talking about doing that for YEARS now (arggghhhhh!). Although, nowadays there's enough cool stuff being shown in Buffalo (like, at the North Park, the Screening Room, Peter Vullo's monthly Thursday Night Terrors at the Dipson Amherst, as a for instance****), hell, I should just focus on getting out more to see those screenings...
Talking to John Karyus again, we not only both enjoyed the crap out of the SHREWS opening credits sequence, we also talked about Lloyd Kaufman’s intro segment. We both loved Lloyd’s intro and then we got into the subject of Lloyd Kaufman movie appearances. John mentioned Lloyd's role in Hal Hartley’s last film but he couldn't think of the title. I brought up Lloyd's appearances in KILLER RACK and also in (Winnipeg film collective) Astron-6’s FATHER’S DAY. Meanwhile, thanks to my mistress the internet, I later learned the Hal Hartley film was NED RIFLE (2014).
I saw Zak Noweihed and wondered if his filmmaking partner, Gabe Simon, was around (they did the award-winning RENAE at this year’s Buffalo 48 Hour Film Project).
I also spoke briefly to actress Erika Frase. I brought up the idea with her (again)(we previously saw each other at the Screening Room for some other film screening, but I forget what) that the short film she was in, EX., might be a cool concept to expand into a feature. I saw the comedy short when it had its premiere in a bar in Niagara Falls. Erika was delightful in it, displaying an engaging enthusiasm to embarrass herself for the sake of a laugh while still staying in character. EX. was directed by Matt Lord, also featured Marcus Ganci-Rotella and in a "special appearance," Bill Kennedy. [NOTE: It turns out I would continue to bump into Erika at the North Park Theatre a week later at BIFFX (the 10th Buffalo International Film Festival) during the screenings of TREW CALLING, DWELLING, and MERCY.]
Meanwhile, I forgot about looking for John Renna by then and, thus, officially blew him off. Sorry, ya big lug!
Heading out, I saw that Leanne Downey and Billy Hammond had a table set up in the back of the theater for their Smoking Hot Bags. I first met Leanne when she was an awesome looking cult member while shooting DICK JOHNSON & TOMMYGUN VS. THE CANNIBAL COP and then I first encountered Leanne’s cool recycled purses in August at the inaugural WNY FAME Arts Festival that was at Geneseo Community College (the festival was founded by Albion filmmakers Rhonda and Mark Parker and their Beaver Alley Studios). Leanne and Billy’s “bags” are made out of converted cigar boxes (Billy’s the smoker) and then the boxes are dolled up to look like a bag. Billy does the physical conversion: handles, hardware, etc. Leanne does the painting of the boxes, usually doing horror, pin-ups, and commission work. In this case, they created a number of products especially for the ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS premiere. Besides the bags, they had a couple strange little boxes that when you opened them up, the inside was lined with black fur: GENUINE SHREW FUR! They were so weird, perhaps even morally-inappropriate (conceptually speaking…) that I HAD to buy one! Okay, sure, maybe “morally-inappropriate concepts” are in the eyes of the beholder… are you saying I should have bought two?
Oh, man! The poster for ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS was totally bad-ass looking, and they were selling the 30”x40” posters for $25. Unfortunately, I really don’t have room to put movie posters up, so I usually refrain from buying such stuff, no matter how seductive the image of a terrified cast, no matter how juicy the colors seem to explode off the glossy paper, especially large sizes of glossy paper like this. Alas, I simply had no place for such delicious items. I’m sorry. [NOTE: Yes, I bought one. Of course.]
And then Ken came up to me and said they had an unusual item of merchandise, of which there were only three of them. It was a rubber white rat. Why a rubber rat? Because they were out of rubber shrews at the various Animal Rubberies, of course! Everyone knows late September is the absolute WORST time to buy your rubber shrews! But, you make do with what you got. Anyway, they had these white rubber faux-shrews, and only three of them. And what made them extra unique was that they were signed by: Ken Cosentino, Marcus Ganci-Rotella, Elizabeth Houlihan, Bill Kennedy, Jonathan Rogers (“I give a rat’s ass!”), Cheryl Szymczak, and finally, Lloyd Kaufman, himself! Anyway, the fact that the three-of-a-kind item existed was great, but then Ken did a very sweet thing and he gave me one of them! He said it was in thanks for my support of the film. I was rather taken aback by this unexpected gift, and ultimately, I was touched by the gesture. I don’t know if I actually deserved it… but I ain’t freaking giving the squeezable albino vermin back! Seriously, this autograph-tatted rubber SHREW was greatly appreciated. Thanks, man! [NOTE: Oh, and good thing I saw Marcus sign it with my own eyes or I’d have no clue who’s psychotic scrawl that was. Everyone else’s name is legible and lovely.]
Finally, as I was leaving, Ken was at the box office and I overheard that the attendance was around 350 people. Excellent!
And that was it. Or, rather, I’m finally going to wrap this mother up...
Unfortunately, due to some personal circumstances, it turned out I wasn’t able to attend the Buffalo Dreams screening of ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS on Nov. 6. So, I not only missed seeing it again on the big screen, but also missed Lloyd Kaufman’s live intro. DAMMIT!!
But the film wound up being nominated for six Buffalo Dreamer Awards:
BEST COMEDY FEATURE
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK FEATURE
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK ACTOR – Bill Kennedy
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK ACTRESS – Elizabeth Houlihan
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK ACTRESS – Cheryl Szymczak
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK DIRECTOR – Ken Cosentino
I also missed the actual awards ceremony that happened to follow the SHREWS screening.
SHREWS wound up taking home two awards:
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK COMEDY FEATURE
BEST WESTERN NEW YORK ACTRESS – Elizabeth Houlihan
I happened to make it back to the Eastern Hills Mall just after the awards ceremony in time to see people celebrating in the lobby and taking pictures in front of the Buffalo Dreams banner. I learned about the White Lion team’s good news and congratulated Ken and Liz on their awards. Also saw that Shrewbert made the trip to the theater as well.
Meanwhile, I also bumped into Marcus, and, well, back at the SHREWS premiere I let slip that I was intending to write a review of the film as well as something about the premiere itself and post it on my blog. A week later at BIFFX, Marcus saw me at the premiere of writer/director Kyle Mecca’s DWELLING. He wondered where the blog post was and I told him I was still working on it. This began an ongoing conversation with Marcus which continued through the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival. Every time I saw him at a screening, he would ask where this supposed post was: What was taking me so damn long? Was it ever going to be finished? Why did I hate them? Or he'd use other tactics, saying: “No, I'm not even going to ask any more,” “You're dead to me,” Etc.
Anyway, I suck at deadlines (ask Tom Waters), even self-imposed ones, so now that I’ve finally finished this post, I’m gratefully dedicating it to Marcus for his constant “badgering” of me -- and believe me, I say that good-naturedly, because I KNOW this guy could genuinely badger me and make my life a living hell if he had set his mind to do just that -- in fact, the phrase Marcus used was “I could be more belligerent” -- so, really, I know I got off easy! Sometimes I need a bit of constant incentive to finish something.
So, thanks, Marcus, you cinematic-abuse-magnet!
By the way, for those shrew-a-philes that missed both screenings or are simply waiting to hold their own ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS DVD in their sweaty paws, White Lion Studios is planning to do self-distribution of SHREWS and are currently waiting for the DVDs to be made. [NOTE: Ken and crew were hoping for a DVD release in the first week of December 2016, but there turned out to be a delay in the manufacturing of the DVDs. Hopefully not too long a delay. Consult the ATTACK OF THE KILLER SHREWS Facebook page for further announcements.]
Speaking of sweaty paws, now that this post is FINALLY done, I think I deserve a little me-time, so perhaps I’ll unwind with a certain little hand-made furry container…
* If you want to see Bill Kennedy getting down with his bad self, there's this Youtube video.
** The indignities Marcus puts up with in WOLF HOUSE are also for comic purposes (to a degree) but in that film they ultimately serve a dramatic context and inform some of the character dynamics in the film.
*** A brief but appropriate detour: Coincidentally, James Best also appeared in a sequel to THE KILLER SHREWS. I haven’t seen RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS (2012) but I think I’ve seen the DVD available at Family Video. In RETURN, Best not only reprises his role as Thorne Sherman but he co-wrote the script as well. HAZZARD buddy John Schneider also shows up as a talent-challenged actor (that’s not a critique, that’s his actual character). If you watch the Youtube trailer, there’s more of an intentional campy quality this time around, and Bruce Davison seems to really be embracing his role (and throwing in some authentic WILLARD love, too).
**** Update: As mentioned above, the Screening Room Cinema Cafe is now located at the Boulevard Mall in what was formerly the Funny Bone Comedy Club. The address is 880 Alberta Dr. and it has an entrance on the outside of the mall, located between Macy's and JC Penney. It faces Alberta Dr. and Wegman's. Meanwhile, there's only one screening left in Pete Vullo's Thursday Night Terrors series: John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). It's happening Thursday (natch!), Dec. 15 at 7:30 pm at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, University Plaza, 3500 Main St. (across from the UB South Campus).