Serious Camp: Paul Lynch Films of the 1970s and ’80s

UK-born, Canada-based director Paul Lynch’s greatest success to date is the 1980 teen slasher pic “Prom Night,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis (fresh off of “Halloween”) and Leslie Nielsen, in a straight role. But within the seven years prior to that breakthrough, Lynch made two small-scale, low-budget slice-of-life films, “The Hard Part Begins” (1973) and “Blood & Guts” (1978)–the very types of films that, between the late 1960s and early 1980s, the Canadian government supported financially. The Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) was established by the federal government in 1967 to bolster the growth of a Canadian film industry, and by the mid-1970s, tax shelter laws were in effect to assist Canadian filmmakers. But in 1984, the Capital Cost Allowance allotted to filmmakers was significantly reduced, and the tax shelters eventually disappeared. CFDC became Telefilm, and in turn more made-for-television movies flooded the industry. Genre films–horror and suspense in particular–became the easiest films to get off the ground, and also grew increasingly popular with Canadian audiences. There was little to no market for down-to-earth fare like “The Hard Part Begins.” The purity was gone.

Not surprisingly, and through no fault of his own, the handful of films that Paul Lynch shot between 1980 and 1987–before he inevitably focused most of his career on television–reflected that loss of innocence. They also proved less successful than “Prom Night.” There was a second horror film, “Humongous” (1982), and a schizoid erotic thriller, “Cross Country” (1983), that fared badly due to last-minute studio takeovers or shutdowns. There was a “Flashdance” knockoff about gymnastics, “Flying” (1986), which marked the debut of Keanu Reeves but otherwise fell by the wayside; a pacifist-man-drawn-to-violent-revenge outing called “Bullies” (1986), which received a US release but was panned for its sadism; and a subdued Harvey Keitel thriller, “Blindside” (1987), which pretty much went straight to video. [UPDATE: “Flying” [AKA “Dream to Believe”] is now available on Netflix mail-order; “Bullies” has the dreaded “saved” status, as in available for the indefinite time being.] Few of Lynch’s early films are available on Netflix; most that are available are made-for-TV sci-fi and action movies released within the last 20 or so years. Nonetheless, after talking to Lynch on the phone, it’s clear that he has little to no regrets about his career; most of his films made some money, and even the slickest ones were never meddled with by the studios.

I racked my brain trying to come up with a common pattern in these seven films–since they all fit the criteria for this blog–and what I finally noticed is, with the exception of “The Hard Part Begins,” they are all would-be camp classics. I say “would be” because, although these movies often contain stilted dialogue, although their dramatic arcs are often very clichéd (girl with knee injury overcomes gymnastics tournament hurdles) and/or very far-fetched (entire town is dominated by one family of killers), none of them are particularly funny. There’s something about the sobriety of Lynch’s direction that makes you believe he believes in these characters, however stock they seem. Lynch said in a 1982 interview with Cinema Canada that he’s never taken on a bad script, and what he might have meant is that he’s never used an unworkable script. He’s hinted in interviews that he doesn’t fancy some of his slicker projects as much as “Hard Part,” but though there’s less soul in his ’80s films, there’s never a lack of tension or efficiency.  As he himself said, in the same 1982 interview, “‘Hard Part’ was made for $100,000 way back when, and if we could have stayed with those budgets, I think we could have made more Canadian movies. But I can’t make a film for $100,000 anymore. You have to find something that somebody will bank-roll.” So Lynch was able to compromise with producers, without wreaking havoc on his own vision. Plus, you can’t really blame him for any bad script, since Lynch never wrote any.

“Hard Part” certainly carries more heart than any of the other Lynch films I saw, and it stands alone as an original work, despite its similarity to “Crazy Heart.” Shot in rural Ontario, it follows a down-on-his-luck country singer (Donnelly Rhodes) who is losing club audiences to the onslaught of hard rock, and is relegated to playing sparsely attended gigs in hotel lounges and dimly-lit bars with his ragtag backup band. He’s dating his female back-up singer, but he cheats on her with bimbo waitresses, and he’s bitter that the hotshot record producer in the area wants to buy her up as a solo artist and leave him stranded. Meanwhile, he tries to reconcile with his estranged, suicidal son, but–in a refreshingly unpredictable scene–it is the distant father, not the angry, entitled son, who gets the last word. The son calls him a loser, a deadbeat, but Rhodes fires back, “I have more respect for people that try and fail than people who roll over and quit.” And that’s the end of the scene.

“Hard Part” generally scores points for not making the protagonist weepy and pathetic like Jeff Bridges’ character in “Crazy Heart.” His downfall is poignant and sad, but he’s stoic in the face of hardship, and even a little mean. When a local hick strides into a diner and accuses Rhodes, incorrectly, of impregnating the hick’s sister, with the taunt, “You think you can just knock her up and leave her with egg on her face?” Rhodes responds by slamming the hick’s face into a plate of eggs, growling, “Now you can join her.” It’s a classic, down-and-dirty scene, and laced with dark humor that is notably lacking from most of Lynch’s films (he has stated in interviews that he doesn’t consider himself a comedy director).

Just as “Crazy Heart” was dismissed by some critics as a virtual carbon copy of “The Wrestler,” the latter film could be called a knock-off of “Blood & Guts,” Lynch’s second feature-film. Like “The Wrestler,” “Blood & Guts” centers on an over-the-hill, small-time wrestler with a weak heart condition (played by William Smith, who mostly portrayed scary villains in a slew of action/suspense films). Unlike “The Wrestler,” however, “Blood & Guts” is not about the comeback of Dandy Dan (imagine a slightly hardened Christian Bale dolled up in a Ric Flair fright wig and red suspenders), but about his tense yet nurturing relationship with his protégé, Jim (Brian Patrick Clarke, a sort of beefier Dave Coulier). Jim, a cocky youth, is referred to at least a dozen times as “baby-faced” (as in: “Baby faces are a dime a dozen!”) by a saucy, Jack Warden-like manager, a lovable coot who yells jokey taunts such as “C’mon, my ex-wife could do an arm drag better than that!” There’s a love triangle involving Dandy Dan’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, a rival manager who’s supposed to be tough but looks more like Sigmund Freud, a few bloody fights, a crazed gunman, and many Canadian actors speaking in Irish accents (some decent, some awful).

Lynch pours just as much heart into “Blood & Guts” as he does into “Hard Part,” and the authentic settings–snow-clogged Ontario towns, cruddy hotel rooms, dim Irish bars with names like Molly-Me Tavern–almost transcend the film’s clichés. There are also some attempts at humor; before Jim christens himself Jungle Boy, a lame Tarzan clone, he poses as the Fighting Physician, brawling in doctor’s garb. But generally, the plot twists can be predicted an hour in advance, and despite some salty banter, the script usually resorts to tired aphorisms such as: “If you make it to the top, don’t forget those people that are sittin’ out there watchin’, ’cause you owe them!” Still, the intimate, down-home feel of the production–it really seems as if Lynch shot the movie with a few close friends– reveals the excitement and independence of the early Canada film movement. (I must thank Jonathan Culp of Cinertia, who very nicely offered to burn me a DVD of both “Hard Part” and “Blood & Guts,” off of a 1980s cable TV recording. Also, a shout-out to Canuxploitation, which provides much helpful,  in-depth analysis of the Canadian film industry).

I knew Lynch’s post-“Prom Night” films (which I ordered off of Amazon) would be a bit schlockier in terms of content, but I was a bit surprised to see something as slapdash and soporific as “Humongous.” I certainly didn’t dislike it to the extent that Janet Maslin, the former New York Times reviewer, did; “If you’ve ever seen a single horror movie, it was probably better than ”Humongous,'” she wrote in her review. But it comes off like a snail-paced “Friday the 13th” knockoff–dumb, horny teenagers are alone on deserted island, misunderstood freak killer sloooooooowly kills them off. It lacks the sympathetic characters and even the minimal chills that “Prom Night” produced, and the final battle–due to a bad video transfer–is eclipsed in darkness; we just hear lots of primordial growling and screaming. There’s also an unsavory rape attempt that opens the film. But that said, there are a few howlers in the screenplay; one of the dumb blonde hunks calls his girlfriend’s rear end “the seventh wonder of the world.” (NOTE: Apparently a re-mastered DVD with infinitely better visuals–you can SEE the climax!–has just been released.)

I enjoyed “Cross Country” (which arrived without a VHS case!) considerably more.  Richard Beymer (who played the immoral hotel owner on “Twin Peaks”) has one of those clenched soap opera actor faces that you can’t wait to watch explode. In “Cross Country,” he plays a high-strung Toronto businessman who’s just been rebuffed by his girlfriend; hours later, she turns up dead and slashed up (happily, unlike in “Bullies,” the violence is relatively toned-down). Across town, Beymer winds up at a strip joint, strikes up a conversation with a persistent stripper, finds out she’s heading to California to become an actress (what else?) and offers her a ride. But then some ruffians come in and threaten the stripper, and in trying to protect her, Beymer gets knocked out. When he comes to, he discovers that an off-kilter, bearded friend of the stripper’s (Brent Carver) has invited himself on the cross-country excursion.

The best parts of “Cross Country” involve the paranoid, distrusting relationship between these three principals. Who killed Beymer’s mistress? Are these three really thrown together randomly or is there a set-up involved? Despite the rather tongue-tied script, Lynch keeps us intrigued. There’s plenty of sexual jealousy–the stripper sleeps with Beymer but consistently rejects Carver, except for one insanely off-the-wall scene in which she consents to give Carver a handjob–while he’s driving. Weirdest of all, it’s Beymer that goads her to perform this act; you keep waiting for a truly loony menage-a-trois to unfold, but this was shot, after all, during a rather conservative film era.

There’s plenty more: an orgy scene, an attempted rape, a game of highway chicken, a few guns and knives capriciously pulled. It’s a shame that, upon Carver’s exit from “Cross Country,” the film self-destructs with a lame red herring plot twist, though the final shot of a car diving into the Grand Canyon is deftly executed. Lynch has a tremendous knack for suspense, which is not a skill to sneeze at, in a time when seemingly every scare tactic has been worn out. The fact that he keeps “Cross Country’s” ridiculously contrived story from flying off the rails for so long is impressive.

That talent comes to its fullest fruition in “Bullies.” The movie is one of those irritating thrillers in which the plot, screenplay and much of the acting are utterly awful, yet the direction is crisp and calculated enough to drum up actual terror. Therefore, it’s hard to tell if the film itself is terrible or if it’s actually good because it successfully made you feel terrible. This is one of those reactionary Reagan-era “Rambo”-esque stories in which good people are driven by inconceivably bad people–who lack brains, desires or even motives–to extreme violence, and in which the audience has been subjected to so much torture, rape, stabbing, shooting, smacking, punching and hand-crushing that the only natural response is to wish the same cruelty on the wrongdoers.

I had this reaction to “RoboCop,” but that film is so cartoonish–even at its most graphic–that I felt no repulsion about my desire to see people brutally killed. In “Bullies,” however, there are two scenes in which innocent characters are forced at gun or knife-point to watch something horrible happening, and in the second instance–a teenage boy is powerless as his mother is raped, screaming, in a nearby closet–I did something I haven’t done in a long time: I hit the fast forward button. With the exception of “A Clockwork Orange,” I haven’t yet been desensitized to that particular strain of emotional violence; I think Stanley Kubrick made the dastardly deeds in “Clockwork” so absurdly over-the-top and exaggerated that, although I was certainly disturbed, I wasn’t traumatized or even sickened. “Bullies” so immerses the audience in ugliness–much of it perpetrated against women, including the lovely Olivia d’Abo, who spends most of the film getting smashed in the face–that I can’t really recommend it as a “so-bad-it’s-good” type of exploitation film. But its ugliness certainly has lasting power.

In need of something more lighthearted, I turned to “Flying,” the aforementioned gymnastics film, which is more memorable for its multiple alternate titles (“Dream to Believe,” “Teenage Dream,” etc.) than its dance sequences. However, for a first-time stab at a dance film, Lynch certainly does a serviceable job, and Olivia d’Abo is on hand again in a sweeter, cleaner role (albeit one that requires her to sport a mess of blonde bangs that would shame Olivia Newton-John.)

As in “Flashdance,” “Flying” concerns a working-class girl aspiring to be a dancing queen. Plagued by an abusive stepdad, who’s also her boss at a dry cleaners, she fares little better at school, where she’s derided by the bitchy brunette gymnastics champs (who are of course less pretty and voluptuous than her). A knee injury prohibits her from joining the team, but somehow, that doesn’t prevent her from sneaking out at night to an abandoned warehouse to secretly, strenuously practice. Before you can scream “Plot convenience!” the injury is miraculously gone and she’s joined the team. Her problems don’t end there, though; there’s a friend with an eating disorder and a hunk that doesn’t love her back and an eccentric blabbermouth (Keanu Reeves) who won’t stop hitting on her. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before we get the obligatory romantic music montage as d’Abo realizes the sweet-faced Reeves is The One.

“Flying” is loaded with clichés, the most shameful of which is the jive-talking yet kindly black mentor role (Denis Simpson), in this case a security guard who cheers on–and jiggles to–d’Abo’s training sequences. And naturally, the film’s slipshod distribution has allowed for some shoddy bootlegs to come down the pike; in the last 20 minutes of my DVD, the audio remains about 20 seconds out of sync with the picture. But “Flying” is generally so upbeat, so harmlessly inspirational, that it would fit snugly on regular cable television rotation, perhaps wedged in between two recurring Lifetime teen trauma pics. The outfits are definitely dated (though released after “Bullies,” it was shot earlier, in 1984), but the message isn’t, and as with the other would-be camp classics, Lynch is so devoted to his star and her character’s story that you can’t really mock “Flying.” And Reeves, now doomed to play strong-silent types for the rest of his life, is in delightfully energetic form in “Flying”; you wish that he’d never stopped playing lovable goofballs like this. Asked by d’Abo in an early scene why he’s been given detention, Reeves replies, with an ingratiating grin: “Well, the teacher said I shouldn’t wear this shirt in school, so I took it off!”

“Blindside” is a little-known Harvey Keitel thriller that received a very short Canadian theatrical run in the fall of 1987;  the only theatrical release review I could find was from The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen, who wrote, “the flabby thing never does pick up much steam.” “Blindside” is easily the dullest of the seven films I watched, though I was relieved that it lacked the brutal bloodshed of “Bullies.” Harvey Keitel’s performance is even more tamped down and pensive than his straight-man turn as the pastor in “From Dusk till Dawn”; he furrows his brow more than he speaks during the entire 98-minute running time. For a B-movie set almost entirely in a seedy, dimly-lit motel, and whose plot concerns voyeurism, surveillance, blackmail and murder, it’s astonishingly devoid of campy laughs. It’s consistently slow-moving, and it takes about 45 minutes for the plot to kick in; before that, we see a lot of Keitel, playing a former surveillance expert now fronting the motel, moping, furrowing and fretting after he’s blackmailed into spying on a voluptuous blonde tenant–who of course resembles Morgan Fairchild. It’s claustrophobic, too; most of the scenes are shot in Keitel’s gloomy office. And despite double crosses galore–guy who wants girl dead also wants her husband dead, etc.–there’s very little sense of the macabre mirth that graced classic film noirs like “Double Indemnity.”

That said, there are a few nutty lines, most of them spoken by the main badguy (Michael Rudder, whom I’ve never seen in anything else). He’s a weapons-obsessed kook (“We need major ordnance,” he says, a number of times, to his dopey henchmen). Like a lot of creeps that only exist in the movies, he has a very homely girlfriend/partner-in-crime, whom he proposes a European getaway to (“We’ll go to Paris, eat frog’s legs. Go to London, see Big Bill.”) There’s plenty of overblown ’80s synth music and booming drums, plenty of  slow-motion shots of people getting plugged with silencers, plenty of over-exposition (Keitel writes down the various double crosses on a sheet of paper, which the camera pans in on). The film’s final plot twist–and final shot–is delivered so abruptly it provokes the film’s biggest unintentional laugh. But “Blindside” is generally too somber to be campy.

Finally, I ordered “The Keeper” (2004), Lynch’s most recent feature film, off of Netflix. As far as I can tell, it had no US theatrical run, and was distributed straight to DVD and the Showtime channel. As I said before, in the years since “Blindside,” most of Lynch’s output has been in television, and I wanted to see if Lynch had changed at all as a filmmaker. With today’s digital and CGI trickery, would Lynch lose some of his focus and resort to the masturbatory, flashy techniques of, say, Guy Ritchie?

Happily, “The Keeper,” at least from a cinematography standpoint, is low on that kind of gaucherie. Even more happily, the story–though it certainly centers on a subordinated and terrified woman–lacks the nastiness of “Bullies.” It’s also a little more playful than “Blindside,” mainly because of the presence of the late Dennis Hopper. After a stripper (Asia Argento) is beaten by an assailant, the police officer assigned to drive her home (Hopper), instead chloroforms her and imprisons her–literally–in a man-made cell in his basement. His purpose? To teach her to reform her hedonistic ways, to deny her freedom until she earns enough “points” (by eating his food, engaging him in preachy conversation and refraining from escaping, basically).

There’s plenty of Argento screaming (she can manage little else), and a stabbing or shooting or two, but I didn’t cry for the fate of movie actresses everywhere. “The Keeper” is  often silly, what with Hopper performing insane puppet shows for schoolchildren about the perils of drugs, or ranting about “Mr. and Mrs. Rat” when some rats eat Argento’s discarded breakfast, or the ridiculous subplot about Hopper’s female stalker (Helen Shaver).

But overall, “The Keeper” shared the same basic trait with Lynch’s earlier work: Lynch has undeniable, even enviable talent at making absurd stories play straight, at using taut, focused direction to distract the viewer from labored dialogue. I assumed, from the workmanlike seriousness of his films, that Lynch would be a rather taciturn, somber sort of man. On the contrary: as you will see from my forthcoming interview with Lynch, he is a maelstrom of words, a detailed, tireless storyteller. He’s perhaps one of the most content people I’ve ever spoken with, with a staggeringly small list of regrets. I will post the interview over the next day or so.

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