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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guilty Pleasures (originally published 8/93)

Sometimes I marvel at the times we're living in. While federal meat inspectors blithely approve the sale of disease-ridden flesh, TV movie reviewers agonize over whether to give a movie a thumbs-up.

"I don't know," the critic says, obviously enduring a dark night of the soul right there in front of the cameras. "The film has some charming moments and a lot of heart, but I just can't quite recommend it."

Oh, go on, force yourself.

My own theory is that if you liked a movie, it's good. If you didn't like it, there are two possibilities: a) you're not part of the movie's intended audience or b) it's bad. As a general rule of thumb this works pretty well, but you also have to take into account that little streak of perversity that lives inside all of us. If we’re honest with ourselves we all have to admit that there are some movies that we genuinely love in spite of their undeniable ghastliness. From Joe Sixpack to the most erudite cinema scholar, it’s my contention that every moviegoer has a few of these “guilty pleasures.” Here are some of mine.

“The Phantom Empire” (1935). Although you might not guess it from the title, this 12-chapter serial is an early Gene Autry picture. He was already well known as a radio singing cowboy, but this was his first starring role in a movie. In a stretch truly worthy of his acting talents, he plays a radio singing cowboy named Gene Autry. But that’s not the weird part. The plot has him doing battle with the denizens of the lost underground city of Murania. Their futuristic society has the advantage of all manner of advanced gadgetry, including metal robots in stovepipe hats. (No, I mean literally – hats made out of stovepipes.) You have to wonder what they were smoking when they decided to cast their budding young Western star in a Buck Rogers story line. There is absolutely no excuse for this movie, but I love it dearly.

“Bucket of Blood” (1959). Most people are familiar with Roger Corman’s hilarious “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960) thanks to the successful musical play it inspired. Less well known is this earlier Corman film, his first effort at combining his low-budget horror film formula with comedy. Corman stalwart Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley, a young sculptor yearning to gain the acceptance of the artsy, pretentious coffee house crowd. Eventually he does make it big, but only by murdering his models and covering their bodies with clay to create his sculptures. Corman didn’t miss the opportunity to ridicule the highbrow art crowd – the very people who dismissed his kind of movie making. It’s vintage Corman; cheap, nasty, but fun.

“Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1965). Like Pinocchio growing up to be a real boy, some films that start off as trash evolve into classics. Robert Aldrich’s film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), for example, was conceived as pure pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to make a buck for all concerned. Screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, experiencing a bit of a slump in their respective careers, agreed to appear opposite each other in a gothic freakshow. Remarkably, the two old pros managed to breathe some life into the grisly proceedings. As a result, the film is now looked back on with a certain grudging respect. Not so “Sweet Charlotte,” Aldrich’s follow-up film. Trash it was and trash it remains. This time Davis is teamed with Olivia de Havilland in a Southern gothic horror story that resembles nothing so much as “Tales From the Crypt.” Davis is an old maid whose lover was murdered with an axe many years ago. The suspicion lingers on, even in her own mind, that she might have done the deed herself. If this sounds like promising material, perish the thought. There is much chewing of scenery by actors who certainly knew better. But they’re all enjoying themselves so hugely that I can’t help doing the same.

In fact, it may well be that therein lies the secret of guilty pleasures. If the filmmakers enjoyed their work, maybe the results, however meager, can somehow transmit that joy to the viewer.

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