Midnight Movies
(And Other Unclassifiable Cult Weirdness)

Titles Reviewed: Brain Dead (1990), Caged Heat (1974)

Brain Dead

(USA, 1990) DIR-SCR: Adam Simon. PROD: Julie Corman. CAST: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Nicholas Pryor, Patricia Charbonneau, George Kennedy.

Writer-director Adam Simon re-developed an un-produced screenplay by Charles Beaumont, which was originally written in the 1960s. Had his script been produced in its own time, it quite likely would have attained a cult following- the blur between reality and fantasy would have been ahead of its time. Not to undermine Simon's achievements, but this film's limited distribution (from Roger Corman's Concorde New Horizons) probably lost its potential audience. Instead, it slowly developed a following on home video.

Bill Pullman, in another role of a fop beset by supernatural sequences, plays Dr. Martin, a neurological scientist who is hired by a corporation (led by evil Bill Paxton) to extract some information buried in the subconscious of Dr. Halsey (Bud Cort, clearly having a ball), a respected scientist who has now gone insane. After the operation, lots of weird phenomena evolve. At first, hallucinations occur in small doses such as imagined conversations or domestic situations, but then things get even stranger. There are dreams within dreams, so that the viewer is never quite certain what is real or imagined. Then it is suggested that Martin is actually a part of Halsey's brain, and that we are seeing the film from his eyes. But that's just the start of this mind-bending tale, where time, characters and reality all blur.

The film's greatest folly is in Simon's unimaginative visual style, yet that too kind of works for the picture. As in Bunuel's The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, every scene is presented in precisely the same monochromatic, flat look, therefore one can never tell whether what we are seeing is in the "real world" or inside someone's head. Like Altman's Three Women, it ends like it begins, so it could run perpetually. In true Corman fashion, this film was shown out of competition at Cannes, because he wouldn't pay the entry fee. But, no less than the legendary renegade filmmaker Samuel Fuller raved about this movie, yet still it couldn't find its audience because Concorde wouldn't exploit its unique appeal. (Adam Simon went on to make Carnosaur for the Corman factory, and the great documentary about Sam Fuller, The Typewriter The Rifle And The Movie Camera). Brain Dead is the kind of movie that home video was made for. Discover it.

Caged Heat

(USA, 1974) DIR-SCR: Jonathan Demme. PROD: Evelyn Purcell. CAST: Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Erica Gavin, Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, Barbara Steele.

After earning his stripes writing and producing various exploitation fare, Jonathan Demme would finally get his big ticket to direct in this cult favourite, which is primarily the last word in the women's prison genre. It at least has the rare distinction of being set in America instead of some banana republic. At once a spoof of the genre and a fascinating allegory, this inventive flick is also a "who's who" of 1970's B-girls: Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Erica Gavin, and (of course) Rainbeaux Smith. Even more, you get Barbara Steele in the showy role of the prudish, wheelchair-bound warden!

In a novel twist, this picture is full of fantasy sequences, as the inmates dream of sexual liaisons. Even Steele's character has private fantasies, as seen in the wild moment where she dances around in a top hat and cane! Everyone here is dreaming of escape: Steele's chair is her own jail cell. One inmate is put in isolation after some lewd photos of her are found by the warden. Fellow inmate Belle (Collins) sneaks food to her, and in one instance is caught after a skirmish with another prisoner, and she in turn is set to be lobotomized for her deviant acts. This chain of events sets the escape plan in motion. There are not one but two brazen escapes. After breaking loose, some of the girls rob a bank, then get a prison van to break back into jail (!) and rescue the other girls who are being drugged and ravaged by the doctor.

While resistance to authority is hardly a new theme in these films, Caged Heat is more interesting for its Satanic portrait of America. The authoritarians who represent the all-American dream are truly repugnant people. This is a picture where the prisoners unapologetically fight authority on a grand scale, and win. Yes, this is an exploitation picture through and through, but it does not mask the social criticism underneath. Like many of New World's biggest hits, this somehow straddles the line between exploitation and art, provoking as much thought and subtext as entertainment. While never much of an action director, especially when he began A pictures, Demme's handling of the many chases, breakouts and shootouts is beautifully done, with much kinetic energy and terrific editing. With a cast of drive-in starlets to die for, it is understandable why this remains such a favourite for midnight movie fans.