Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wrestlemaniac

Is it just me, or is there a whole new stratum of horror movies out there these days? They’re straight-to-video, but unlike the straight-to-video of old, they actually look like they might be halfway decent. They’ve got professional covers and decent photography and an overall level of competence that we’ve never seen in the straight-to-video market.

I mean, usually these things are just tax write-offs, you know? The production company knows that they can get X amount of money by selling their movie to Blockbuster, who just wants to fill up their shelves with as much recent product as possible, since no one ever looks past the New Release section. So as long as the production company spends less than X amount on the movie, they’re guaranteed a profit even if no one ever sees it. With that kind of business model, there isn’t a lot of incentive to make these things watchable. They just need a concept that’ll look good on the box. Alien Vampires. Vampire Predators. Predator Zombies. Zombie Aliens. You know what I’m talking about. They’re just sitting there on the shelf, trying to pretend like they star Gary Busey when everybody knows they could only afford to shoot with him for one day. They don’t even look bad enough to be fun. They just look tired and desperate and world-weary, like old strippers who don’t even care if you look at them anymore.

But now we’ve got this new breed of straight-to-video. I think it all started with the After Dark series. You know, it was a film festival of eight horror movies that nobody would have seen separately, but together, they looked like a good package deal. It worked with the Spice Girls, so why not horror movies? Personally, I feel like a bad horror fan because I haven’t seen a single one of these things. They tried to make them out to be like Horrorpalooza or some shit, but I wasn’t fooled. I know straight-to-video horror movies when I see ’em. I wasn’t gonna let any goddamn marketing department trick me into paying to see them in a theater like they were real movies. I don’t care how many Suicide Girls with tattooed titties were in the audience.

So then these things came to DVD where they should have been in the first place, and I guess the studios saw that there was some money to be made feeding cheap (but not cheap-looking) horror movies to a limited but devoted audience, because now they’ve all got their own horror imprints that have words like "Extreme" or "Raw" in their names. They usually brag about their movies being unrated, which technically just means that they never bothered to send them to the MPAA, since straight-to-video movies don’t have to be rated. It’s like Sprite bragging about being decaffeinated.

I don’t know how I feel about this trend. Sure, I’m glad that there are a lot more horror movies out there and that they don’t have the kinds of restrictions that theatrical horror movies have. But I also think we’re losing something. To me, it takes some of the fun out of it when even straight-to-video horror movies look slick. I mean, with the digital tools available today, there’s no reason for a movie to look like crap. Everything can be color-corrected and tweaked and desaturated to death until your little B horror movie looks like Bad Boys II. It seems weird for me to argue for incompetence as a stylistic choice, but the fact of the matter is, half of what made low-budget seventies and early eighties horror scary was that it looked and sounded like shit. The photography was dirty, the meat-cleaver editing was jarring, and the score sounded like it was recorded in some porn addict’s basement. It made everything unpredictable. You never knew what the fuck was going to happen, because you didn’t know what kind of amateur lunatic was behind the camera. You felt like you just might be in the hands of a madman. Or at the very least, an Italian cokehead. But when everything looks nice and professional, you feel safe. You know that it’s just some well-adjusted 32-year-old film school grad who’s been first-ADing for a while, but he found some commercial producers with some foreign backing who wanted to break into features so they gave him the shot to direct because they thought his script was marketable. I’m serious. Listen to the commentary on any of these things and they make the whole process sound about as sordid as opening up a Lenscrafters franchise.

Anyway, this is a lot of baggage to dump on top of Wrestlemaniac, which is the story of a bunch of idiots who get murdered by a luchadore in a Mexican ghost town. I don’t have to explain the deal with Mexican wrestlers, who have kind of replaced midgets as the new cinematic code for absurdity. If you’ve never seen a real Mexican wrestling movie, you kind of owe it to yourself. My favorite parts are when the luchadore is just doing normal shit, like reading a book or enjoying a candlelit dinner with his ladyfriend, but he’s still got the mask on and nobody thinks that’s weird.

Anyway, it’s only gringos (such as the assholes who made Wrestlemaniac) who think luchadores are funny. In Mexico, they’re folk heroes who stand up for the common man. They fight corruption and injustice, as well as Martians. They give hope to the hopeless and provide generations of Mexican children with positive role models. So it’s kind of a dick move to take all that noble history and turn it into a cheesy slasher movie. It’s like making a killer Superman movie.

Aw, who am I kidding? This is a brilliant idea. The execution is only adequate, but it’s still a brilliant idea. What it’s about is this van full of total douchebags who are driving down to Mexico to make a porno. I don’t know why they couldn’t just shoot it in Pasadena or something, but I’m sure there were some real good reasons. Union problems, maybe. The jizzmoppers local wanted too much money.

Now, right away you know you’re in trouble, because these characters are annoying as balls. Everything they say is self-consciously vulgar and mean-spirited, and yeah, it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but since when did "tongue-in-cheek" mean "cringe-inducing"? Shit, the very first line of dialogue is about the mythical sex move known as the Dirty Sanchez. Way to ruin that term, movie. That’s almost as bad as when American Pie blew up milf’s spot.

The only guy who’s even kind of likeable is the fat Mexican-American cameraman, who’s played by the dude they hired because Hugo from Lost was already booked. He’s the one who knows all about the Mexican ghost town of La Sangre de Dios, where legend has it that a luchadore named El Mascarado was imprisoned after he went crazy 40 years ago and started killing his opponents in the ring.

Part of the problem with this beginning part is that, like those Mexican restaurants all over New York that are run by Chinese people, there are no actual Mexicans in it. The porn douches go to a rundown gas station where the attendant claims to be Mexican, but he’s played by the white mongoloid-looking dude who was in House of 1000 Corpses. And they don’t even try to make him look, dress, or act Mexican. In fact, the only Mexican in the whole movie is El Mascarado himself, who’s played by the original Rey Mysterio (not the one in the WWE, who’s actually this guy’s nephew). He’s an older dude, so he’s got the classic Mexican wrestler build, all chest and gut. I have no complaints about Rey Mysterio whatsoever. He’s a mean motherfucker, and he looks great stomping on people and throwing them through breakaway furniture. But while he’s an awful lot of Mexican, he’s still not enough Mexican to allow this movie to fully exploit its premise. I mean, how many killer Mexican wrestler movies is the universe going to allow? Not many, I’m saying. Possibly just this one. That’s a big responsibility, movie, and I’m sorry to say, you fumbled it. You’re just not Mexican enough. You’re a Chexican chimichanga: tasty, but not authentic.

But all is not lost. Once the horror kicks in, I liked Wrestlemaniac quite a bit. It sort of reminded me of the obscure Spanish film Who Can Kill A Child? (Answer: A dude with a machine gun. He can kill the fuck out a child) in that a lot of it takes place in this deserted village in broad daylight. Personally, I like daytime horror movies because they remove the audience’s subconscious belief that dawn brings safety. When some maniac is stalking you in the middle of the afternoon, you’re pretty much fucked. I also like the Scooby Doo aspect of it, with this group of young people in an awesome custom van (my favorite character in the movie) going to a spooky place and investigating a local legend. Granted, Scooby Doo never had any lesbian scenes, but we all know the subtext was there.

And like I said, having a Mexican wrestler play Jason is a brilliant idea. El Mascarado’s specialty is beating people to a pulp and then ripping their faces off with his bare hands. It’s like removing a luchadore’s mask after he’s defeated, which is the ultimate humiliation. As the fat guy tells us, if a luchadore’s face is revealed to the public, he must retire in disgrace. So that’s how the fat guy figures out El Mascarado’s weakness: You gotta rip his mask off. Easier said than done, but at least there are some rules to this shit.

Speaking of the fat guy, he grew on me as the movie progressed. I think it was when he said that the reason he knew how to navigate around the ghost town, uncover secrets, and solve the mystery was that he was a veteran Dungeons & Dragons player. I mean, it kinda makes sense. If nothing else, D&D teaches you to pay attention to your surroundings and use the information you gain to solve the problems that you face, which is all important if you want to live through a horror movie. I have an ex-girlfriend who’s going to be very happy to learn that all those years tossing around 20-sided dice weren’t just providing her with a nonstop supply of crush-stricken troglodorks drooling over her (admittedly drool-worthy) rack; they were also teaching her valuable anti-luchadore survival skills.

Anyway, the beginning of the movie definitely leans too far into the winky-winky comedy realm, but by the end, they’ve got the balance right. It’s not completely straight-faced, but it’s serious enough that you can actually get into the story unironically. The face-rippings are nice and gross, and there’s a satisfying scene where the most annoying character in the movie gets tossed around like a sack of peat moss, then has his teeth knocked out on a stone ledge, Profondo Rosso-style. I do think there could have been more kills, more wrestling, and more wrestling-related gore, like heads getting clotheslined off and legs getting figure-four-leglocked into bloody splinters. But I have to give it to the director for his clean, efficient style. There’s no nu-horror twitchiness to the cinematography or editing. This guy has studied his Carpenter. He’s got the smooth, gliding Steadicam down, which lets him build suspense, establish geography, and, you know, let the audience see what the fuck is going on. And he throws in at least seven completely gratuitous ass-cam shots. That’s what Joe Bob Briggs would call "doing things the drive-in way."

I was especially impressed to learn that they were supposed to film the movie in an insane asylum, but then the day before the shoot, they lost the location, so they moved to a fake Mexican ghost town outside of L.A. two days later and rewrote the script on the fly. All things considered, they pulled it together pretty well. So maybe I was jumping the gun earlier when I complained about how these new straight-to-video horror movies are too professional. I guess there’s still a bunch of half-assery going on behind the scenes, even when the finished product ends up looking like a commercial for an allergy medication.

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